Even in Red Deer's downtown area, pedestrians play second fiddle to automotive traffic / Photo: Gary Toth

Red Deer, Alberta, is a small city about halfway between Calgary and Edmonton. Once a sleepy agricultural outpost that provided a convenient stopover for travelers moving between the territory’s two larger cities, Red Deer has experienced substantial growth over the past three decades due to the growth of the oil industry, booming from 30,000 residents in 1975 to just over 90,000 in 2012. As might be expected given that time frame, virtually all of the new growth has taken the form of auto-oriented sprawl.

Today, the City Council is seeking to change that, and have developed a new civic vision that is outlined in the Strategic Direction 2012 – 2014 report. This vision included the creation of an Integrated Movement Study (IMS) with the following goal:

“Our deliberate decision to create viable alternatives to single occupant vehicle travel in our transportation network encourages healthy active lifestyles, environmental stewardship, supports safety for people of all ages, increases use of our public and green spaces, and integrates our sidewalks, trails, bike lanes, transit service, rail, and roads with our built environment.”

Red Deer began to retune their downtown streets even before the start of the Integrated Movement Study, as evidenced by the rightsizing of Gaetz Avenue. Note the deployment of chicanes. / Photo: Gary Toth

Earlier this month, PPS’s Gary Toth was invited by the City and 8-80 Cities, which is leading the IMS, to conduct several interactive sessions on the role that Complete Streets might play in moving Red Deer to a balanced and livable transportation network. While in Red Deer, Gary facilitated two interactive discussions on Complete Streets as part of a workshop called Building Better Blocks. The first discussion began with photos of several streets, some with designated bike and bus lanes and some with none. Participants were asked to discuss whether the streets were complete. Quite a few of the participants argued that the streets without bike lanes were not complete, but as the discussion unfolded, the group came to understand that Complete Streets policies do not require that designated space be provided for each mode, but rather that travel via all modes be safe, comfortable & convenient for everyone, regardless of age or ability.

This means that bike lanes are not only not required, but sometimes even discouraged. When street dimensions and adjacent land uses slow vehicular speeds to below 20 mph, for instance, it is actually preferred that bicyclists share the street with the cars. Sharing space forces everyone to be more cautious and observant, and creates safer driving conditions for the drivers and bikers, as well as nearby pedestrians.

Workshop participants quickly pointed out that while this Dublin Street was technically a “Complete Street”, its value to the community was limited due to lack of fostering the Street as a Place. / Photo: Gary Toth

Participants at the Red Deer workshop also quickly grasped the fact that allocating space for all modes doesn’t automatically generate pedestrian and bicycle traffic. With little prompting, participants recognized that streets such as the one from Dublin, pictured to the left, would benefit greatly from a Placemaking process that would engage residents in planning for how the street will be used, ensuring that the space would meet local needs and attract more people out to use the street. This idea is at the core of PPS’s Streets as Places initiative.

Armed with this new awareness of what it takes to complete a street, workshop participants went outside to test their ideas in a unique learning environment. Called Safety City, the space is a reduced-scale network of streets and buildings created to teach the children of Red Deer about how to safely navigate their city’s streets, both on foot and in cars. The adults in the workshop were provided with a range of props that they used to re-shape the small scale streets with bike lanes, medians, crosswalks and bulb-outs—and there was no lack of creativity in doing so!

The following day, Gary led a group of City officials—planners, engineers and others— advocates, and stakeholders through an exercise designed to foster mindfulness of the 20th Century practice of planning streets solely for high-speed auto traffic. Starting with the dawn of the private car and accelerating after World War II, street planning policies have completely ignored the diverse uses of streets for generations, sacrificing communities to move automotive traffic as efficiently as possible. What is needed now in Red Deer (and around the world) is a return to the practice of creating a wide palette of street types that are sensitive to the community context. This range is known by planners as a “Street Typology,” and while the name may be cumbersome, Street Typologies are nimble tools that lead to streets that better serve their surroundings.

Street Typologies seek not to turn over every one of our streets to the bicycle and pedestrian at the expense of moving goods and vehicles, but instead aim for a balanced transportation system. Developing a range of context sensitive street types provides cities with the flexibility to design different streets in different ways, and fosters a civic mindset that leads to more people thinking about streets as places not just vessels for moving cars, but for tying the community together. Street Typologies also ease the resistance of transportation professionals to new ideas, since they reassure these professionals by making it clear that not all streets will need to be retrofitted to 20 mph Main Street-style corridors. Finally, these typologies convey to community, biking, and pedestrian advocates that the era of relegating all non-motorized street users to secondary and peripheral status is over.

A Red Deer City engineer explains how his group retuned the demonstration street to foster Placemaking as well as comfort for all modes. Median, landscaping, mid block crossings and even a roundabout were created. / Photo: Gary Toth

While each group of participants came up with a slightly different “toolkit” of streets, all agreed that there was room in Red Deer for a wider variety of street types: slower streets where bikes and pedestrians are the priority; destination streets where the primary purpose of the street is social and economic exchange; and wider, faster streets designed to move people and goods around town. As this booming city in the “Texas of the North” has shown, a lot can change in a few decades. Now, with a better understanding of how to create more complete streets, Red Deer is on the road to success.