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Complete Streets Projects Spur Controversy Among Bay Area Residents

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San Francisco Bay Area residents who don't drive, and instead choose to navigate their streets on foot or via bicycle, are mostly ambivalent, and in some cases outright happy, about a new wave of bike-friendly initiatives moving forward throughout the Bay. These plans took off back in 2008, when the state legislature approved a series of "complete streets" projects designed to improve traffic safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

San Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Clara are leading the charge toward complete streets changes, reports the San Jose Mercury News. In order to slow traffic and make crosswalks safer, San Jose will transform the high-speed one-lane Fourth and St. James streets into two-way roads. San Francisco has announced that the traffic lights on Valencia Street will match the speed of cyclists instead of cars, in addition to the implementation of new bike lanes -- in the place of a vehicle lane -- on Oak and Fell Streets. Santa Clara has already jump started this wave of projects with the replacement of one lane on Pruneridge Avenue with a bicycle lane.

Despite early support from safety advocates and bicycle organizations, however, many Bay Area drivers have voiced serious criticism, and some are trying to stop complete streets in their tracks. This vocal segment of residents is concerned that these plans will increase congestion and make traffic even more unbearable.

Santa Clara commuter Santo Rao called the change "completely nuts," adding that "a slow-moving car can block up the entire road" under the new plan. "While China is busy building up future infrastructure to dominate the world, here we have harebrained folks doing the opposite, taking us back to one-lane roads."

Gary Richards lines up some more complaints about the complete streets measures for the Mercury News. George Walton worries that eliminating vehicle lanes will make traffic worse, which will lead to longer commutes and more pollution as commuters spend more time sitting in their cars. "What possessed them to degrade traffic like this?" he asked. "In a day when we are trying to go as green as possible, why on Earth would we do something to increase our use of oil?"

San Francisco is also moving forward with an effort that will add bike lanes at the expense of travel lanes and parking spaces on commuter-heavy Oak and Fell Streets, which a local businessman called "a 20-block on-ramp." This project is already catching criticism from business owners and residents who claim that the city did not survey the neighborhood, and even misled the public about the level of support they had in order to proceed.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman Paul Rose said the city will spend $165,000 on an "extensive public outreach campaign" to determine whether the plan should continue. But some proponents worry that the measure is already doomed, like a similar bike lane project on Cesar Chavez Boulevard that was halted last month at the last minute by interim mayor Ed Lee, despite years of planning.

Proponents of complete streets acknowledge that the plans could lead to more traffic, but argue that this concern is irrelevant if complete streets reduce bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. A recent study published in the journal Environmental Practice found that cities with significant bicycle ridership and widespread bike lanes have shown major decreases in bike accident deaths. Bicycle meccas like Berkeley and Davis, for example, reported an average of 2.5 bike deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to 9 deaths per 100,000 people in low bike traffic cities.

Advocates say that complete streets are better for public safety and the environment. But they also argue that complete streets could make Bay Area cities more manageable by reducing the average resident's reliance on cars and highways, which will eventually ease traffic congestion. "By designing and building more complete streets, people are able to choose to walk, drive, bicycle or take transit," said Chadrick Smalley, a Richmond development project manager. "Streets that are designed solely for automobile travel often do not feasibly permit that choice to be made and, instead, force people to drive."

A majority of Bay Area residents is likely to be impacted by complete streets, as development projects are scheduled for San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Clara, Oakland, Redwood City, and Hayward. Visit the California Department of Transportation for more details, including videos and links to information about complete streets programs throughout California.

Ben Buchwalter lives in San Francisco's Mission District and writes a blog on Bay Area street safety. Previously, Ben worked as a writer and researcher for Mother Jones Magazine and Talking Points Memo.