Missoula among national leaders in ‘complete streets’ policy

A bicyclist rides down Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula, as pictured on the cover of the national report, “The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2016,” released by the National Complete Streets Coalition and Smart Growth America on Thursday.

It’s no accident that the cover of Smart Growth America’s new report, “The Best Complete Street Policies of 2016,” includes an image of a biker peddling down Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula.

On Thursday, the National Complete Streets Coalition and Smart Growth America released their 2016 report highlighting the best complete street policies in the country, giving Missoula a perfect policy score.

Brockton, Massachusetts, and Wenatachee, Washington, were the only other cities to achieve the coalition’s highest ranking, one that recognizes a city’s commitment to create streets that are safe and convenient for all users.

“Our growth policy and other key planning documents have a focus-inward strategy that promotes infill and other development within the community,” said Jordan Hess, a member of the Missoula City Council. “For the better part of a decade, Missoula has been positioning itself to actualize that inward strategy.”

Hess, who also serves as director of transportation at the University of Montana, and Ben Weiss, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian program officer, showcased Missoula’s efforts to write and adopt a successful complete streets policy during a national conference call held Thursday as part of the report’s unveiling.

Weiss described Missoula as a rapidly growing college town predisposed to biking and walking, largely due to its younger population. The city is also relatively new compared to East Coast standards, meaning it has wider right-of-ways that make it easier to accommodate all users.

But while Missoula first adopted a complete streets policy in 2009 during its early transition to a metropolitan area, it would take another five years before the city moved to revisit the plan. It did so in part due to a number of conflicts that had surfaced between different groups.

Among the conflicts, Weiss named the fate of the city’s trees and boulevards.

“How do street trees fit into a complete street policy?” Weiss said. “Do they get included, or are boulevard trees the first thing to go when there isn’t the right-of-way or room for bike lanes? It’s a common battle that was had both by city staff and in the public’s eyes.”

Given the conflicts and the age of the original policy, Weiss said the City Council asked for an updated plan. In doing so, Weiss scored a number of local complete street projects on their success and failures, and looked at the only city in the county to have earned a perfect score from the National Complete Streets Coalition.

At the time, that city was Redding, Pennsylvania.

“We all talked it over, went line by line, and really just adopted Redding’s policy to Missoula,” Weiss said. “We didn’t outright steal it, but we didn’t reinvent the wheel.”

Weiss said the team, including the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, city planners and engineers, and members of the City Council, made subtle changes to the Redding plan. They also incorporated a portion of a policy from Dawson County, Montana.

Weiss took the newly revised complete streets policy back to the City Council, which adopted it unanimously.

“I don’t know that we’re going to resolve the conflict through a complete streets policy saying that if we have too narrow right-of-ways, do we eliminate boulevards and trees or change up the biking situation,” Weiss said. “It’s still seeming to be a street-by-street conversation we’re having, although the conversations have gotten a lot friendlier.”

Since the National Complete Streets Coalition was founded in 2004, the number of compete street policies adopted in communities across the country has climbed to more than 1,230.

Just last year, according to the report, 222 municipalities adopted a policy, suggesting a shift in transportation needs and philosophies.

Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, said adopting a successful policy is more than just a checklist. It is, she said, a frame of mind.

“It really starts to redefine what a transportation network will look like,” Atherton said. “It’s not just about putting one fancy bike lane on your main street. It’s about creating networks of opportunity within your community.”

In Missoula, as in other cities looking to build complete streets that serve all modes of transportation, conflicts of opinion often arise. Locally, they have included the pedestrian bridge spanning South Reserve Street, and the loss parking and travel lanes in portions of the city.

Just this year, city leaders have discussed or funded studies to look at a number of lane reductions, including 5th and 6th streets, and Higgins Avenue from Broadway to Brooks Street. A similar study could be pending for Orange Street.

But as Hess believes, Missoula has found success and balance by adopting the best practices of other cities, and by following the research of the National Complete Streets Coalition.

“We stand on the shoulders of everyone who has contributed to the complete streets movement, and to me, that’s good governance,” Hess said. “At the project level, we do sometimes have challenges reaffirming our resolution, especially those (projects) that remove parking or other things. But every project is context sensitive, and we have the framework to make the decision.”