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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

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Cover Story

Creating Complete Streets

Movement aims to make roadways safer

By Josh Stephens

This intersection in Kirkland, Washington has a highly visible crosswalk and accessible curb cuts.

In many ways, it is easier to describe what a complete street isn’t than what it is. A non-complete street primarily serves the through-put of automobiles. If pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and diners at sidewalk cafes can use streets too without risking bodily harm or aesthetic offense, so be it. But those uses are, on the vast majority of American streets, incidental.

A new movement has been fighting against this transportation myopia. The complete streets movement calls for streets to be designed—or redesigned—in order to accommodate a broad range of users and uses. Bike lanes make streets more complete. So do enhanced crosswalks, lands aping, and sidewalks that accommodate disabled people. The possibilities are endless for cities that want to save lives and choose to view their streets as more than just thoroughfares. 

“Every time you touch the transportation system, you should consider complete streets,” said Emiko Atherton, executive director of the National Complete Streets Coalition (NCSC). “It’s about changing the way we look at transportation planning.”  

Traffic calming measures like bumps, humps, curves, bollards, roundabouts, and chicanes—obstacles or curves deliberately placed in the flow of automobile traffic—can make streets more complete. So can dedicated lanes for transit and enhanced stops. Improved signage and pavement markings make streets more complete. In commercial areas, widened sidewalks and shade trees make them more complete. Two-way streets are preferable to one-way streets.   

At its most extreme, a complete street might be a woonerf. Devised in the Netherlands, a woonerf does away with all features that privilege the automobile over other forms of transportation. Usually narrow and intricately landscaped, every centimeter of a woonerf can be occupied by any type of user. Traffic does not necessarily flow quickly, but it flows pleasantly and safely.  

But streets don’t have to go full woonerf to be more complete. There is no such thing as “a” complete street. No single street is “complete.” Complete streets encompasses more of an idea—and an attitude—than a typology.  

Even in the United States, that attitude is catching on.  

Building Momentum

In the mid-2000s, American cities were rediscovering their souls in a variety of ways. The New Urbanist and smart growth movements encouraged urban planners and developers to re-embrace the sort of dense, mixed-use, vibrant cityscapes that had prevailed in cities prior to World War II. Meanwhile, advocacy group America Bikes devised the term “complete streets” in 2003. Scholar Barbara McCann co-founded NCSC (now a project of Smart Growth America) in 2004 to advocate for cities and states to adopt complete streets policies and implement complete streets projects. 

Though many of the ideas behind complete streets were heretical or superfluous to transportation planners—especially the call for the slowing of automobile traffic—cities including Seattle, Boston, and New York City embraced the idea early on. Portland, Oregon, adopted progressive pedestrian design guidelines in 1998. In 2007, Louisville, Kentucky, adopted what might be the first set of comprehensive guidelines to refer to complete streets by name with its Complete Streets Manual.  

Today, complete streets have gone decidedly mainstream. The NCSC estimates that more than 1,200 cities, states and counties have adopted complete streets policies. In many ways, these policies serve as mission statements expressing what cities want to get out of their roads. 

“We want to measure the performance of moving people, not cars,” said Atherton.  

Since 2012, NCSC has annually recognized the best complete streets policies in the country. Honorees include cities small and large, ranging from Portland, Maine, to Ocean Shores, Washington, and Austin, Texas, to Northfields, Minnesota. The organization does not necessarily expect cities to adhere to its model ordinance, but it does look for cities whose policies reflect NCSC’s 10 “ideal elements.”  

These elements acknowledge that every locality is different and must choose appropriate strategies and interventions. But, they urge common commitments to features such as a vision, accountability, attention to all users and modes of transportation, acknowledgment of a mobility network rather than isolated projects and clear steps for implementation.  

“It doesn’t mean you get to take every route you want, but it means you have the choice,” said Atherton. 

Policies can be adopted as ordinances, resolutions, or cursory statements of good faith, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Generally, the best policies are those that force transportation planners to consider complete streets concepts in every project and, ideally, to do so early in the planning stages so that attention to different forms of mobility is incorporated in every proposal. Results will vary according the contexts and needs of individual cities. But policies ensure that planners are considering all reasonable options and a full range of users.  

“Now we have the policy backup to say when the city itself or developers or utility companies touch the right of way they will look comprehensively at the needs of the users of that street,” said Bruce Hyman, Transportation Program Manager in Portland, Maine. 

Seattle’s ordinance requires planners to consider complete streets strategies in the earliest engineering phases. The ordinance includes a strict checklist that engineers and planners must heed. Decision-makers need not approve every proposed design element, but they must make sure that the checklist was completed.  

Seattle passed legislation to require projects to undergo complete streets assessments as part of the  design process, said Susan McLaughlin, urban design manager at the Seattle Department of Transportation. “Institutional change takes time; often if you’re required to do something, it advances that change a little bit faster.” 

Commiting to Change

Dan Burden

By the time even the most dedicated cities fully implement their complete streets policies—retrofitting and redesigning every eligible mile of pavement to accommodate all users safely and efficiently—the personal automobile might have long ago given way to flying cars and hyperloops.  

The implementation of complete streets resembles not so much surgery, be it a new hip or a quadruple bypass, so much as it does a commitment to exercise and a healthy diet—gradually transforming every fiber and cell—with results measured over a lifetime. In this case, the health of the city parallels the health of its population, as complete street policies are intended, in part, to save lives by reducing crashes and through promotion of active transportation.
“With a city as large as Phoenix over 500 square miles, and 5,000 miles of roads and 10 distinct villages it is a pretty daunting feat to go about and implement this on a citywide basis,” said Mark Melny-chenko, deputy director of the Street Transportation Department in the City of Phoenix. 

Complete streets policies tend to kick in as cities conduct regular street maintenance and develop capital improvement programs. On rare occasions, cities deliberately redesign entire corridors or create visible demonstration projects. For this reason, complete streets programs tend to be as imperceptible as they are widespread. And not all projects look the same. 
“We take to heart ... that it’s not a one-size-fits-all type of applications,” Hyman said. “Every street’s not going to have buffered bike lanes.”  

Christopher Leinberger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Project, recommends cities focus on high-value areas.  

“You don’t necessarily have to spend your political capital on the 95 percent of the metropolitan land that is drivable suburban,” Leinberger said. “You can focus your efforts on the 5 percent.” 

That 5 percent can include urban cores or specific corridors where improvements make the greatest impact.  

Then again, many cities essentially have no choice but to pursue complete streets strategies if they want to improve mobility. Phoenix turned to complete streets out of equal parts of desire and necessity.  

“We receive calls on a daily basis: ‘What are you going to do about congestion,’” Melnychenko said. “We are not widening our streets any further. We can’t. We’re already out to the light poles.” 

He said the city is working to add bicycle lanes and find ways to better connect pedestrians to transit.

Many proponents of complete streets caution that the mere installation of a project does not make a street complete. NCSC and others insist that monitoring and measurement, ideally with before-and-after data for factors such as traffic flow, crashes and fatalities, and bicycle and pedestrian traffic, is crucial both to evaluate the efficacy of a project and to hold public officials accountable. Even then, individual projects, ideally, must be linked to a network in order to promote mobility throughout an urban area.   

“When folks develop a policy and they develop an implementation plan, it really helps that in order to document your progress that you have performance measures and that you actually track them and that the folks responsible for those measures are accountable by management,” said Ann Maheney, chief of the Smart Mobility and Active Transportation Branch of the California Department of Transportation. “You need leadership.” 

Changing Minds

City of Charlotte DOT

This crossing in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, has many complete

streets features, including bike lanes, highly visible crosswalks and



“We have a bike master plan, GRID bike share ... other programs that reinvent Phoenix,” Melnychenko said. “Complete streets is trying to tie into those programs, as well as our capital improvements program—projects that include bikes, pedestrians and amenities that we really wouldn’t have thought about before.” 

In addition to local funding, federal programs, such as TIGER grants, have funded many complete streets projects. Proponents of complete streets got a boost in 2015 when the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act included a clause implicitly supporting “road design standards that take into account pedestrians and other vulnerable road users, as well as motor vehicles, through all phases of planning, development, and operation,” according to Smart Growth America.  

Many states have their own grant programs, technical assistance programs, and design guidelines. The California Department of Transportation not only promotes and funds complete streets projects but also coordinates with other state agencies that work on the built environment—including the California Department of Water Resources and the state’s Natural Resources Agency. 

 “This is the first time, really, that all state agencies are going in the same direction,” Maheney said. 

At the other extreme, local opposition to specific projects can stifle the aims of complete streets. Motorists recoil at proposals to reduce lanes of traffic, and merchants often get anxious about changes to street parking. Otherwise, though, the complete streets movement has proceeded with relatively little opposition. 

Meanwhile, the Vision Zero initiative, which seeks to reduce traffic fatalities, is complementing the complete streets movement nationwide. This goal has added a sense of urgency to the implementation of complete streets policies. A widely cited 2008 study of different street configurations in California found that those adhering to complete streets principles promote far more walking and bicycling than their 1950s-era counterparts, and they experience three times fewer fatalities from automobile crashes.  

Economic Benefits

Grassroots opponents and city controllers alike might temper their anxieties when they consider potential economic benefits of complete streets.  

“There are concerns about the costs of the projects in general,” said Charles Brown, a senior research specialist at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. “Then there’s the question of, what’s the economic impact of my investment?” 

Though tangential economic impacts of infrastructure projects are difficult to estimate accurately, studies indicate that the benefits outweigh the costs.  

In New Jersey—where 134 of the 565 municipalities have complete streets policies—Brown said a 2011 study estimates that promotion of active transportation created a net economic impact of $497 million to the state’s economy and that projects totaling $63 million stimulated
$149 million in economic activity—which comes with commensurate tax revenue to state and local coffers.  

Among the municipalities the New Jersey Bicycle & Pedestrian Resource Center recently acknowledged for its work is Somerville in Somerset County. Somerville has used complete streets to attract new businesses and residents, particularly millennials looking for a safe, walkable community. Division Street near the rail station was converted into a pedestrian mall, attracting retailers back to the downtown and creating a new gathering place for residents and visitors.

Jersey City, the state’s second largest city, has also drawn praise for creating a pedestrian mall. Newark Avenue in the heart of the downtown  has been compared to New York City’s Time Square. The road, adjacent to the Grove Street PATH Station, is regularly used for events that draw large crowds. Bustling restaurants have replaced once vacant storefronts. 

Leinberger, from the Brookings Institution, shares Brown’s view that complete streets bring economic benefits to the community.

“Once it starts, it starts this upward spiral of tax revenue,” he said. 

A recent NCSC report that studied 37 complete streets projects found that they saved a collective $18.1 million through avoidance of accidents. Adjacent property values rose in eight of 10 cases. In one particularly successful project in Orlando, centered on the conversion of a four-lane road to three lanes, the report not only identified decreases in collisions and injuries but also the net addition of 77 new businesses on the street.   

And there are other benefits to encouraging transportation other than cars.  

“You also see reductions in greenhouse gases and vehicle miles traveled because of complete streets projects,” said Wieland. 

From data such as this, the organization extrapolates that savings incurred by walking, biking, and use of public transit amount to $2.3 billion annually in Chicago and $19 billion in New York City (both of which have complete streets policies).  

These economic benefits arise because the appeal of a street to pedestrians, cyclists, and even transit riders does not end at the roadway. Advocates for complete streets say that there is a virtuous cycle in the relationship between well designed, functional streets and well designed, attractive neighborhoods. 

This does not mean that frontage roads are going to turn into Greenwich Village overnight. But, in many urban neighborhoods, especially in commercial areas, attention to complete streets can create more welcoming streetscapes and distinctive places. 

“Planning and the built environment are huge aspects in complete streets,” Atherton said. “It’s ultimately about creating places.” 

Atherton suggested that even subtle elements in complete streets policies, such as mandates for reduced setbacks and parking lots behind buildings rather than facing streets, can contribute to placemaking. 

And even if residents and businesses don’t know what a complete street is, many are likely to embrace the results. 

“What the market is demanding is walkable urban development; there’s pent-up demand for it, there’s price premiums,” Leinberger said. “What walkable urban development requires is a portfolio of transportation options. Complete streets provides the right of way to achieve that portfolio.” 

Josh Stephens is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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