Butler & Freeport St. Etna
Butler and Freeport Streets in Etna. Photo by Tom O'Connor.

Since 2014, Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration has spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours of work on expanding the city’s bike lanes. The lanes, which now connect Downtown with nearly every corner of the city, have become a potent metaphor for Pittsburgh’s transition from Rust-Belt casualty to “America’s Most Livable City.”

While bicycles alone do not revitalize a neighborhood, many smaller boroughs and communities in the metropolitan area are eager to follow the city’s lead. Yet they often lack the resources to even begin.

Brian Wolovich, a Millvale Borough Council member and director of Triboro EcoDistrict, says that while the City of Pittsburgh has a dedicated mobility and public planning department,  in communities like Millvale or Sharpsburg “there’s little to none of that capacity. The planning committee is made of different volunteers — volunteers that we’re lucky to have.”

As Wolovich explained to NEXTpittsburgh, adapting existing roads to accommodate bikes and pedestrian spaces can be difficult: It brings up complex questions of zoning laws and urban planning that volunteer planning committees are ill-equipped to tackle.

This is where the Complete Streets policy comes in.

Complete Streets is a policy framework that requires new street and municipal projects to be designed to accommodate a variety of transportation modes — not just automobiles. The initiative was first launched in 2004 by the Washington, D.C.-based National Complete Streets Coalition.

“Complete Streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops and bicycle to work,” the organization says on its website. “They allow buses to run on time and make it safe for people to walk to and from train stations.”

More than 1,400 communities nationwide have adopted the guidelines. And in the past three months, the Borough Councils in Etna, Sharpsburg and Millvale have joined that list. All three have passed Complete Streets policy frameworks.

“In Sharpsburg, where nearly one-third of households don’t have access to a personal vehicle, safe walking and biking routes and connections to public transit have a huge impact on residents’ quality of life and access to opportunity,” says Brittany Reno, executive director of the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization and president of the Sharpsburg Borough Council.

Wolovich says the new guidelines will affect a number of high-profile development projects that are already in the pipeline. These include riverfront developments in Etna and Sharpsburg, as well as ongoing resurfacing projects funded by the state and county.

While council members and community volunteers may come and go, Wolovich says that the Complete Streets guidelines will enable smaller communities to have a consistent vision and execution plan for their redevelopment projects for the foreseeable future.

The guidelines, he says, are “a tool that will help us maintain the charm and character of our communities for generations.”

Pittsburgh City Council passed similar legislation in 2016. Like Etna, Millvale and Sharpsburg, the city collaborated with a wide range of stakeholders including the advocacy group BikePGH and the Allegheny County Health Department on the finer details of their own Complete Streets bill.

“Our streets are one of the city’s greatest assets,” said Councilwoman Deb Gross, one of the legislation’s sponsors, at the time of its passing. “This is about improving the quality of life for residents of all ages in our neighborhoods by fully harnessing our public right of ways — we’re not limiting ourselves to simply moving automobiles. We are trying to increase walkability, improve safety and move people rather than just cars.”

Interested in seeing more? Mt. Lebanon features this illustrated document of Complete Streets on their website.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.