Complete Streets: How Including Everyone Can Make Communities Safe, Fun, and Prosperous

The Complete Streets movement is gaining more ground as politicians and planners respond to the call for safer and more inclusive streets.

Promoting Economic Development, Strengthening Communities, and Improving Public Health

The Complete Streets movement is gaining more ground as politicians and planners respond to the call for safer and more inclusive streets.

In 2011, 140 jurisdictions adopted Complete Streets policies. The following year, an additional 130 jurisdictions also signed policies, joining the ranks of 466 regional and local districts as well as 27 states.

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition: “Complete Streets are streets for everyone. They are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages, and abilities.”

Designing streets for everyone who will use them is still a surprisingly new concept in North America. While some jurisdictions and states had introduced legislation requiring road projects to include pedestrians and bicyclists in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t until 2003 that the term Complete Streets was introduced. How planners create Complete Streets will vary from project to project. What ultimately determines a street’s “completeness” is how a community uses the redesigned space.

Redesigns can include but are not limited to widened sidewalks, protected bicycle lanes, and additional crosswalks.

“[Complete Streets] is not a product,” said Stefanie Seskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, “it’s an approach and a philosophy to how we achieve our design goals.”

Applying a Complete Streets approach and philosophy to street redesign requires discussion and input from the local community. The consultation process often occurs during multi-day workshops and meetings. The outcomes are better, Seskin said, if you don’t frame Complete Streets as a bicycle-only project. Street redesigns need to focus on benefits for all users or the likelihood of push back increases.

Addressing the Needs of a Community

Through a community consultation process that focused on improving street access for all users, Bridgeport Way, the main street through University Place, WA, was converted from a five lane car-centric design to a Complete Street. Residents gained bike lanes, sidewalks, mid-block crosswalks, and a median with plants. Since the redesign, business and redevelopment along the street has improved and crashes have declined by 60 percent.

Key to achieving this drastic redesign was the involvement of local businesses. The University Place Chamber of Commerce worked with business owners who donated right-of-way space, saving the city $470,000 in acquisition costs.

Elsewhere, Complete Streets have been accomplished at no additional cost to a municipality. Fionnuala Quinn, a civil engineer with Alta Planning and Design, a highlighted how Complete Streets can be realized by simply “moving paint around.” Without any changes to a street’s width, painted lanes can be altered to improve safety and to increase the likelihood that people on bikes will use the street.

In Washington, DC, 40 miles (64 kilometers) of new bike lanes have been added since 2005. No streets were widened; these changes were accomplished using existing space and moving paint around. As a result, Washington, DC, has seen an 80 percent increase in bicycling. Partial credit for this increase can be given to Capital Bikeshare, which launched in 2010.

“You don’t want to be widening streets further,” said Quinn, “you make things worse. In the suburbs we haven’t begun to use the space we’ve already built.”

Political Support Completes Streets Faster

Beyond support from residents and businesses, to achieve a full Complete Streets policy that applies to all street projects, buy-in from politicians is needed.

Washington, DC, in particular, has been very influential in helping win political support. Several members of Congress now recognize the benefits brought upon by the Capital Bikeshare system and bike lanes.

Political support is also helping speed up Complete Streets implementation. Chicago, IL, due in large part to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiatives, added more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) of bike lanes in 2012.

Also in 2012, the Portland Bureau of Transportation concluded that with their limited budget it made more sense to focus on bicycling and walking projects, even more so than they are famously known to.

Political will is often won over by focusing on the economic benefits that Complete Streets policies can help usher in. New sidewalks and traffic signals added along Barracks Row in Washington, DC, helped triple economic activity on a once declining strip.

Focusing on the cost effective nature of Complete Streets policies has also helped with buy-in from cities looking for ways to increase public safety and boost business affordably.

In January 2013, Memphis, TN’s, mayor A.C. Wharton signed an Executive Order that established a Complete Streets policy for the city. Even with a limited transportation budget, the city is planning to add 55 miles (89 kilometers) of bike lanes to the existing 50 miles (80 kilometers) they have added since 2010.

After a Complete Streets-style evaluation of Nashville, TN’s regional transportation plan, a significant shift in how the area will support active transportation occurred. 70 percent of roadway projects will now include active transportation options, up from just 2 percent in the previous plan.

Dallas, TX, Charlotte, NC, and many other cities are being won over by the success and economic boost that adopting Complete Streets can achieve. Perhaps it’s driven by friendly competition, but the desire to improve street access to all ages and abilities has found the political will needed to further the movement.

The time has come for an end to the privilege given to cars on our public streets. By creating comprehensive plans that address the needs of everyone who accesses a street we can promote economic development, build and strengthen communities, and improve public health.


Ted Johnson lives in Flagstaff, AZ. He is the editor of Commute by Bike, and writes weird product descriptions for online retailer BikeShopHub.com. Read more at CommuteByBike.com

@Commute_by_Bike


Complete Streets Talking Points

How do you identify a complete street? Use these talking points, compiled from National Complete Streets Coalition fact sheets, to help identify the benefits Complete Streets policies can have for your community.

+ Accommodate All Travel Choices

The needs of everyone are considered in the design of Complete Streets. Children, older adults, people with disabilities, no one is excluded. Of Americans over the age of 50, 40 percent report a lack of sidewalks in their neighborhoods, 55 percent say there are inadequate bike lanes and paths, and 48 percent feel that there is no comfortable place to wait for a bus. By adopting Complete Streets policies, communities are better able to address the needs of all residents.

+ Are Good For Business

Adding a bicycle lane on San Francisco, CA’s, Valencia Street resulted in a 60 percent increase in sales at local businesses. Providing better access to people who walk, take transit, and ride bicycles means encouraging more people to visit and shop on a street. By making all travel options attractive, Complete Streets can help reduce congestion costs, improve real estate values, and create more jobs.

+ Encourage Active Living

Active communities are healthy communities. On streets with sidewalks, 65 percent of residents are more likely to walk for exercise or to nearby destination. Easy access to transit and networks of connected bicycle lanes encourage physical activity and can help reduce health care costs.

+ Save You Money

Of trips in urban areas that are under one mile, 65 percent are made using cars. Approximately 18 percent of household incomes (and up to 20 percent in car-dependent areas) are spent on transportation and much of this money goes directly to the gas pump. By 2020, Americans will spend an estimated $260 billion on gasoline in one year. Walking, bicycling, and taking public transit all help individuals save money by reducing their dependence on gasoline.

+ Improve Your Community

Investments in walking, cycling, and transit projects attract new residents and young professionals to communities. These projects improve public safety, reduce carbon emissions, and help residents feel connected to their neighbors. Streets that are designed around pedestrians can help reduce the risk of injury by as much as 28 percent.

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