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Portsmouth takes first step toward ‘green and complete’ streets

Ordinance would call for more sidewalks, bike lanes, roundabouts, crosswalks and more

By Jim McGaw
Posted 9/18/20

PORTSMOUTH — Imagine hopping on your bicycle and safely sharing a busy Portsmouth roadway with motorists, pedestrians, and people using walkers or wheelchairs.

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Portsmouth takes first step toward ‘green and complete’ streets

Ordinance would call for more sidewalks, bike lanes, roundabouts, crosswalks and more

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Imagine hopping on your bicycle and safely sharing a busy Portsmouth roadway with motorists, pedestrians, and people using walkers or wheelchairs.

That’s the idea behind “complete and green streets” — safe access for all users, regardless of how they are traveling — which the Town Council heard all about during a virtual workshop on Wednesday, Sept. 16. 

The council is considering a draft ordinance by Town Planner Gary Crosby which would require all private development projects to construct to green and complete street standards as much as possible. After about two hours of discussion and presentations by the planner and C.J. Opperthauser of GrowSmartRI (a statewide nonprofit that advocates for sustainable, smart growth), the council voted 5-2 to forward Mr. Crosby’s draft to the Planning Board for review.

Complete streets design features include, but are not limited to, sidewalks, paved shoulders suitable for bicycle use, lane striping, bicycle lanes, share-the-road signage, road diets, roundabouts, crosswalks, pedestrian signals, bus pullouts, raised crosswalks, and traffic-calming measures. 

Mr. Opperthauser said green and complete streets are designed to be accessible for everyone, no matter how they get around. “The use of a complete street is one that all at once will feel safe, comfortable and convenient,” he said.

Don’t expect those elements to be incorporated on every street — or any time soon, however. 

“There are different levels of complete ‘streetness,’” said council member Daniela Abbott, a strong proponent of getting an ordinance passed. “It’s going to be different for each kind of road and each volume of road. It’s not going to be a blanket application for every single road; we’re going to have to go through a pretty robust implementation, planning and prioritization process and focus on the roadways where it’s a priority to have complete streets elements integrated.”

Council member J. Mark Ryan agreed. “Clearly, a dead-end street with three houses on it has much different requirements than East Main Road, for instance.”

Speaking of East Main Road, state roads are excluded from the draft ordinance (as are any projects underway at the time any ordinance becomes law). 

However, the council could include language in the ordinance that references the state’s own complete streets law that was passed in 2012, according to Ms. Abbott. The town of Madison, Conn. approved a similar ordinance which local officials could use as a model, she added.

If the town were to incorporate green and complete streets principles through an ordinance for its own town roads where applicable, it would be better positioned to work with the R.I. Department of Transportation to implement them on state roads as well, creating a network of complete streets, she said. 

Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa agreed that was a sound strategy. “It feels like a major purpose of enacting an ordinance is so we can hold the feet of the state to the fire,” she said. “Our major problems are on state roads, and I’ve been led to believe if we have an ordinance, we’d have better success in forcing the state to do what they’re already supposed to do.”

Portsmouth’s priorities

Town officials made it clear that if green and complete streets elements were incorporated locally, they would be prioritized based on need. As one example, Ms. Abbott, who lives off Middle Road, said she would like to see improvements along that road as well as Stub Toe Lane.

“It’s nerve-racking to see three teenagers walking side by side on Stub Toe (Lane) with cars coming by and having to dodge in and out,” she said.

She also pointed to the intersection of Union Street and East Main Road. “There’s a brand-new beautiful curb cut that was added to the corner — and it connects to nothing,” Ms. Abbott said, adding that several existing crosswalks need to be fixed.

Mr. Opperthauser displayed examples of green and complete streets, as well as local roads that are are in need of improvements, such as Sprague Street, which is used by many young pedestrians to get to and from the high school. Two Google Street images showed teenagers walking both on and just outside the narrow road, which has no sidewalks. 

“I don’t think anyone would want this to be our kid,” said Mr. Opperthauser. “We know we can do better. You can clearly see this street is not really accommodating those are are already using it. I would not call this safe, comfortable or convenient for that person.”

The benefits of green and complete streets are many, he said:

• Health: Allows for regular walking, and less traffic means cleaner air.

• Equity: Accommodates people who don’t have a car (such as Mr. Opperthauser) or cannot drive.

• Economy: Walkable and bikable communities attract more tourists and visitors; pedestrians and bicyclists tend to spend more locally than drivers (they build stronger connections to businesses, he said); property values rise in walkable communities; residents enjoy lower transportation costs; and fewer cars means less frequent road repair and less money spent on gas.

How to do it

Mr. Opperthauser said green and complete streets can be incorporated in many different ways. “It’s not one size fits all, and there are different levels of commitment,” he said.

For example, sometimes it can involve nothing more than painting in a bike lane, or using “paint and plastic” to cut down a turn radius to make intersections safer, he said. He also provided examples where a two-lane bikeway was tested out in Connecticut by simply putting down green mats. 

“That’s an incredibly cheap way, if you’re gonna repave a street, to just test out an idea before you commit some money to it,” he said.

It’s important to design an ordinance that fits the local community’s needs, Mr. Opperthauser said.

“It’s a philosophy and a flexible process; sidewalks aren’t going to suddenly appear on every road and street in Portsmouth and it’s going to cost you millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “It’s case by case, and street by street and community by community. I think there’s plenty of room for complete streets in Portsmouth and they’re going to different than complete streets in Newport and Providence, and that’s fantastic; they should.”

Policy or ordinance?

There was some disagreement during the workshop on whether green and complete streets should be implemented by ordinance or a mere policy. Director of Public Works Brian Woodhead favored making it policy, saying he was concerned that such an ordinance could divert money from the local road paving program in favor of green and complete streets.

Council member Keith Hamilton agreed. “I don’t think we should have anything that’s binding and ties the hands of our DPW staff and our planning staff,” he said. Mr. Hamilton also said he didn’t think it was proper to take an official vote at a council workshop.

Ms. Abbott said the difference is a policy would not be legally binding, while an ordinance would be. “Policies come and go with councils and staffs, and priorities and ordinances have more staying power,” she said.

The council voted 5-2 to forward the draft ordinance to the Planning Board for its review and comments. Mr. Hamilton and council member Andrew Kelly voted against the motion.

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