Birmingham City Council passes Complete Streets ordinance

Birmingham will soon see major changes to its roadways throughout the entire city — more dedicated bike lanes, improved pedestrian sidewalks, and enhanced equity for all users — after the Birmingham City Council unanimously approved an ordinance, which adds a “Complete Streets Policy” to the city code.

According to the Planning, Engineering and Permits Department, “Birmingham’s vision for its transportation system also supports community efforts to improve the built and natural environments and achieve better public health and fitness…[The Complete Streets Policy] involves intentionally transparent process as well as concentrating investments in ways that yield the greatest good, not only from a transportation standpoint, but also for overall quality of life.”

Here is an example of how the new Complete Street Policy will change the way city streets are designed and put to use:

According to Smart Growth America, a national firm that advocates for smart neighborhood design, Birmingham has an opportunity to improve the city’s transportation infrastructure with the passage of the ordinance.

“There is no singular design prescription for Complete Streets; each one is unique and responds to its community context,” the website reads. “A complete street may include: sidewalks, bike lanes (or wide paved shoulders), special bus lanes, comfortable and accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crossing opportunities, median islands, accessible pedestrian signals, curb extensions, narrower travel lanes, roundabouts, and more.”

Tim Gambrel, principal planner with the City of Birmingham, said there will be two separate committees tasked with overseeing the implementation of Complete Streets throughout the city.

“Primarily there will be two committees; a technical committee of city staff that will evaluate each transportation project and to what degree we would be able to make a complete street,” Gambrel explained to the Council on Tuesday. “There is also a section in ordinance that requires us to develop a priority network. There will also be an advisory committee that will consist of citizens at large that will collaborate with city staff and look over our shoulders and also participate in the project implementation.”

The advisory committee will have 21 members (citizens at large, a real estate professional, a business owner and appointments from the Mayor and Council) and the technical committee with be comprised of seven city planning employees.

After the passage of the ordinance, Councilor Darrell O’Quinn lauded the moment as “historic” and said the new policy will change the way people experience the city.

“Everyone that spoke pointed out why this will be a historic moment for Birmingham. I don’t know if most folks will realize it now, but I hope in 15 or 20 years from now people can look back and see we turned a corner here,” O’Quinn said. “Great neighborhoods are built on great relationships. Quite often in our neighborhoods, sidewalks are where that happens…As part of this, the city is developing a priority network, where we really want these type of streets to be implemented. We can’t do that on every street and it’s not going to be applied uniformly to every street. But there will be specific corridors that have these type streets.”

O’Quinn continued by saying that implementation won’t be immediate. Rather, when a street is in need of repairs, the committees will assess whether or not a complete street will be viable. If it is, changes will be made.

Over a dozen people spoke during the public hearing, all of them voicing support for the ordinance. “I do ride a bike,” Delvin Ishman said. “I rode it from my job to here. I’m for anything that makes cycling safer. I want my wife to be able to ride without me spending an hour trying to convince her she won’t be run over.”

Often, transportation can be a major impediment for someone being able to hold a steady job, therefore continuing a cycle of poverty. Kathryn Doornbos, the executive director of Redemptive Cycles, a nonprofit that helps low-income residents have access to bikes, said she fully supports the new ordinance.

“When I think of Complete Streets, I think of the 700 sliding scale clients we serve, people who don’t own a car and use bike or feet to get around,” Doornbos said. “Our streets should serve these people. They don’t have a collective voice. But there will always be community members who deserve safe, comfortable transportation options. I believe in transportation equity.”

The issue surrounding inadequate sidewalks also touches on public health, as Councilor Lashunda Scales pointed out. “I know that in our area, Alabama is high up on the list for obesity. When we look at sidewalks we need to look with a different perspective. Not just ADA compliant, but from a health perspective. We’ve been talking about this for a while. It’s going to serve us well with out comprehensive land use plan,” Scales said.

Carolyn Buck, a representative with the Freshwater Land Trust, said the new ordinance with help make the Red Rock Trail system accessible to all 99 neighborhoods in Birmingham.

“Outdoor exercise is good for physical and mental health,” Buck said. “The Center for Disease Control granted us the Red Rock Trail master plan. It plans for parks, trails and sidewalks that connect every community here. We want every citizen to have access to greenspace and can access them without the need of a vehicle. It makes outdoor recreation equitable to everyone. In order for our Red Rock Trail system to have impact, it’s vital that people can access these points. The complete street ordinance will allow that. It will help us connect all 99 neighborhoods together.”

Members of the council and residents alike both expressed the importance of having a system in place that makes it easier for people with disabilities to get from one point to another.

Karen Korb, a representative with the Lakeshore Foundation, spoke in support of the Complete Street Policy. “One of the things about disability, is it is the ultimate intersection,” Korb said from her wheelchair. “It intersects race, gender, nationality, and so many other things as we all know… Being different, is like having another part-time job. Complete Streets allows more access for inclusion in ways that are more productive than just compliance…I’m excited about our future.”