'Complete streets' speeds past a milestone

Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

The movement to make streets serve the needs of everyone — not just motor vehicles — is gaining strength fast. A new report from the National Complete Streets Coalition says 23 state governments have adopted policies aimed at converting their transportation networks into "complete streets."

The 52-page report, "Complete Streets Policy Analysis 2010: A Story of Growing Strength," documents the 219 written complete streets policies that were adopted by municipalities, counties, regions, and states across the US by the end of last year.

"Complete Streets policy adoption has been accelerating rapidly, with the number of communities adopting policies roughly doubling each of the last three years," says the report, written by Stefanie Seskin with contributions from Barbara McCann, head of the Washington, DC-based organization. 

Among the findings:

• "Suburban communities of fewer than 30,000 people make up the largest percentage of adopters by size and location. Small towns, often in rural areas, are well represented, with about one-fifth of policies adopted by these smaller jurisdictions. State and regional policies have often encouraged adoption of policies at lower levels of government."

• Adoption is "remarkably widespread." In every state except Maine, South Dakota, and Nevada, at least one Complete Streets policy had been enacted by the end of 2010. "Heightened activity is evident in a few states and regions, including Minnesota, Michigan, and California, where a state law is beginning to require inclusion of Complete Streets in general plan updates."

• "Over one-third of all Complete Streets policies adopted are expressed through relatively simple resolutions, and approximately one-quarter are laws or ordinances. Internal policies, expressed through top-level departmental objectives, made up about 12 percent of all policies, and 14 percent are contained inside planning documents such has comprehensive plans."

• State governments must lead. "Localities look to the state to provide examples of policy language, but also how to effectively create Complete Streets. Outreach from the New Jersey and Wisconsin DOTs [has] helped not only their district departments, but also locals, understand the more technical and process details to Complete Streets."

• During 2010, more than 80 municipalities, counties, regions, and states adopted Complete Streets policies, which work to change the transportation paradigm from “moving cars quickly” to “providing safe access for all modes.”

• The strongest policies are those that are clear in intent, saying facilities that meet the needs of all types of travelers using the roadway “shall” or “must” be included in transportation projects. 

What the initiative accomplishes

"The power of the Complete Streets movement is that it fundamentally redefines what a street is intended to do, what goals a transportation agency is going to meet, and how the community will spend its transportation money," the report explains. "It breaks down the traditional separation of ‘highways,’ ‘transit,’ and ‘biking/walking,’ and instead focuses on the desired outcome of a transportation system that supports safe use of the roadway for everyone, by whatever means they are traveling."

Such a policy formalizes "a community’s intent to plan, design, and maintain streets so they are safe for all users of all ages and abilities," the report observes. "Policies direct transportation planners and engineers to consistently design and construct the right-of-way to accommodate all anticipated users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation users, motorists, and freight vehicles."

The goals  can be achieved through a variety of means: ordinances and resolutions; rewrites of design manuals; inclusion in comprehensive plans; internal policies developed by transportation agencies; executive orders from elected officials such as mayors or governors; and policies developed by community members and agency staff and then formally adopted by an elected board. 

The impetus has come from many quarters, including public health agencies, advocates for older people, transportation specialists, and bicycle advocates. In Minnesota, "almost all the policies have been spurred by a desire to improve safety for people walking and bicycling to their destinations and to encourage more walking and bicycling as a way to improve public health," the Coalition says.

"In Connecticut, traffic safety inspired adoption of their state law. In Hawaii and Puerto Rico, both of these factors, as well as a desire to ensure that people have alternatives to driving as they age, inspired the state AARP chapters to actively engage in successful policy adoption campaigns." In many places, Complete Streets policies are part of an effort to make communities environmentally sustainable. 

Top policies

The report rates policies across the country and offers advice on what they should encompass. According to the Coalition, these are the top policies:

New Jersey Department of Transportation – Policy No. 703 

Louisiana Department of Transportation – Complete Streets Policy 

State of Minnesota – Statutes 174.75 

State of Connecticut – Public Act 09-154 

Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission – Complete Streets Policy 

Bloomington/Monroe County, IN Metropolitan Planning Organization – Complete Streets Policy 

Hennepin County, MN – Complete Streets Policy 

Lee County, FL – Resolution No. 09-11-13 

Salt Lake County, UT – Ordinance No. 1672 

Crystal City, MO – Ordinance 

Roanoke, VA – Complete Streets Policy 

Missoula, MT – Resolution No. 7473 

Herculaneum, MO – Ordinance No. 33-2010 

New Haven, CT – Complete Streets Design Manual 

Tacoma, WA – Complete Streets Design Guidelines

Elements of an ideal policy

According to the Coalition, an ideal Complete Streets policy:

• Includes a vision for how and why the community wants to complete its streets

• Specifies that ‘all users’ includes pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit passengers of all ages and abilities, as well as trucks, buses and automobiles.

• Encourages street connectivity and aims to create a comprehensive, integrated, connected network for all modes.

• Is understood by all agencies to cover all roads.

• Applies to both new and retrofit projects, including design, planning, maintenance, and operations, for the entire right of way.

• Makes any exceptions specific and sets a clear procedure that requires high-level approval.

• Directs the use of the latest and best design criteria and guidelines while recognizing the need for flexibility in balancing user needs.

• Directs that complete streets solutions will complement the context of the community.

• Establishes performance standards with measurable outcomes.

• Includes specific next steps for implementation of the policy.

A Complete Streets policy requires preparation.  "We know from our research and experience that full implementation requires agencies to undertake additional training of staff, as well as creation of new project development processes, design standards, and performance measures," the report notes. 

Limits of the rating system

The report provides guidance for communities interested in adopting a Complete Streets policy. Not every aspect of the Coalition's rating system is working as well as the organization had hoped, however. In examining the results, the Coalition found that the rating system "does not work as well for comprehensive plans, where a finer analysis is needed to accurately determine strength and reach of the Complete Streets element within the overall framework of the plan."

"The tool is also inappropriate for simple design standards that include little information about the justification and goals of those designs for the community," the Coalition noted. "Design manuals with more extensive discussion of policy fare a bit better with this tool, though their place within the transportation process makes the inclusion of some elements of an ideal Complete Streets policy inappropriate."

The Coalition's next undertaking will be "the design of an implementation assessment tool to aid advocates and practitioners in identifying and measuring the often behind-the-scenes changes that must take place within agencies in order for new priorities to be adopted and institutionalized."

Download the full report below.



Complete-Streets-Policy-Analysis.pdf2.5 MB