A model for Stephen Avenue? How a "complete street" works in the real world

There’s a buzzphrase about urban transportation these days. “Complete streets.” You’ve heard it. Cites are making it their goal to change many roads from the way they exist now, basically as smooth delivery platforms for cars, into something that works for everyone, not just drivers.

For many people, myself included, this always seemed like a nice notion that was difficult to visualize. Does it mean adding bike lanes? Expanding sidewalks? More space for street hockey? I think a lifetime in Canada made it difficult for me to truly understand what a complete street was supposed to be. That’s probably why I’ve been, like many Calgarians, nervously anticipating plans to introduce bikes onto Calgary’s pedestrian-only Stephen Avenue Walk later this year, worried about conflicts and potential accidents.

After attending the third Winter Cycling Congress in the Netherlands recently, I can officially say I now get what a complete street really is. I was invited to speak at the event (full disclosure: organizers paid for my plane ticket to attend), which took place in Leeuwarden, a northern city of about 100,000 people that may be most famous as the birthplace of Mata Hari. But what I’ll remember most is seeing a complete street in action. Of course, nobody there called it a complete street. It was just a street. But the way people used the road was a real eye-opener.

This idea didn’t exist on all of the roads. The fast and busy multi-lane roads and highways  didn’t look much different than those in North America, except for the presence of weird brands of North American cars (Ford Ka? Wha?), and of course, for the ever-present cycle tracks and bike routes running alongside. You know the Dutch and their bikes. But on roads with slower speeds and less traffic, that separation was thrown out the window. Onto the road, everybody mixed. I mean everybody. People on bikes, cars, trucks, mopeds, strollers. And what was perhaps most surprising to me: they did this on streets nearly devoid of road signage.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. “Great idea, hippie. Throw everybody together with no rules and somebody’s gonna get killed.” I thought the same thing, especially the first time a car squeezed past me as I strolled down the middle of the road pulling my suitcase. But after a few hours in the city, I got used to the idea, felt safe, a little exhilarated (in a city-nerd kind of way) and I realized that people approached the road in a fundamentally different way. It’s almost as if the idea of a road was different.

Rather than fighting for space, with signage and a handbook telling everyone how to behave, people simply got along. I’m reluctant to say they “shared” the road, because of all the connotations that term has picked up in recent years, but that really was how people behaved. Drivers went slow, and manoeuvred around the eye-popping number of cyclists. Moped drivers slowed (most of the time) for pedestrians. Delivery trucks backed up in the middle of a street, and people simply went around. As one Dutch delegate to the conference said: “It’s based on relationships instead of rules.” What he meant was that people on the street made their way around by communicating with the people around them, with eye contact and social cues and body language. That’s a high falutin’ way of saying that people were just being people.

The roads seemed to function based on patience and respect as well. At one point, a large group of delegates gathered in the middle of the road for a photo and traffic in both ways stopped and, amazingly, waited. Us North Americans felt sheepish about stopping cars and were cringing in anticipation of an assault of car horns that never came. The Dutch carried on arranging people for the photo as if they, well, owned the road.

This doesn’t always work. Near the NHL University building (don’t get excited, Canadians, it has nothing to do with hockey. NHL stands for Noordelijke Hogeschool Leeuwarden), the city had recently converted a large section of roadway to a “shared space,” which looked, basically, like a wide road with a bus stop on one side. Our group strolled to the middle of the space and hung out, but cars and buses came by rather quickly for my taste. Another delegate from Leeuwarden confessed the shared space hadn’t been a complete success. It was too wide, he felt, which gave a cue to car drivers that it was safe to go quickly. The city had recently installed a planter in the middle of the road in an attempt to slow the traffic, but he grumbled that it still wasn’t quite right. The point is that what makes shared space and complete streets work is making everybody feel safe and welcome. That doesn’t mean we all have to hold hands around a campfire – most of it comes through design.

What does all of this have to do with Stephen Avenue? I still share some of the consternation about the impact of adding bikes to what has been Calgary’s premier (and only) meaningful pedestrian street, but Leeuwarden showed me how people can get along when they are left to just be people. And without cars there to further complicate things, the process should be smoother still.

I expect there may still be problems from time to time, but hopefully, this move will make one street in Calgary a little more complete.