Are Complete Streets there yet? We’re just getting started

How do you measure the success of Complete Streets? Despite two decades of progress and the adoption of over 1,700 Complete Streets policies, the stark reality remains—countless local governments lack Complete Streets policies, unsafe roadways persist, and resistance to changing the status quo prevails. The movement’s goals are an uphill battle, but we’re prepared to dig in and continue fighting for the transformative shift to transportation planning that we’re seeking.

A group of children ride down a bike lane in front of the U.S. Capitol building
Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Are Complete Streets truly making a difference? It’s a frequent question posed by advocates, policymakers, and even our own partners. In light of the alarming trends in traffic deaths, especially for people outside of vehicles, some may be questioning the effectiveness of the solution we stand so firmly behind. But this question presupposes that we have covered the American landscape with Complete Streets, that our work is done, and now we should sit back and see the expected positive results. The reality is, we’re just getting started.

Over the course of two decades, our commitment to making streets safer and more accessible for everyone has yielded some significant results. Thanks to tireless efforts across the country, there are now over 1,700 Complete Streets policies on the books. These achievements are heartening as we see the policies translate into numerous new projects breaking ground. However, when we look at the full picture, the reality is sobering.

Consider that over 87,000 local governments don’t have a policy on the books and that hundreds of thousands of miles of roadway still need to be retrofitted to create safe access for people walking and biking. It’s also disheartening to note that the majority of states—the owners of the most dangerous roads—have failed to adopt or uniformly implement Complete Streets policies. As of now, only 16 states and Puerto Rico have adopted Complete Streets policies.

Another challenge is ensuring that the adopted policies are actually Complete Streets policies—and not a policy in name only—and that they’re being implemented quickly and effectively. A community’s Complete Streets policy is only as good as the project that results from it. Unfortunately, in our experience, even some of the strongest policies never translate into meaningful changes on the ground. While we strive to transform existing infrastructure, the reality is that new, unsafe roadways continue to multiply.

That’s why the Complete Streets movement’s primary goal has always been about changing the way we move people and build communities in the United States. While we have been successful in grabbing policymakers’ attention and seen many communities build incredible Complete Streets projects, we have barely scratched the surface of implementing the changes we’d need to create widespread and profound transformation. This involves changing the systems, processes, standards, policies, and priorities in place that would make Complete Streets the new status quo.

Complete Streets isn’t just about tracking policies or individual projects. A bike lane that serves a single community is a success only for that community. We want every community to have the streets needed to support the safe and accessible movement of people. Complete Streets is about a paradigm shift, and that is an ongoing, often frustrating, battle.

We faced an immense challenge when we started this fight. Advocating for Complete Streets policy adoption required that we change the entire conversation around transportation. We had to redefine what a successful street looked like and who it was meant to serve. The ongoing adoption of Complete Streets policies and the increased popularity of walking and biking are promising signs of our progress in this fight. But that’s the first step on a long path, a path that includes battles every step of the way through project selection, implementation, and fighting against those who would undo all of our champions’ hard-won achievements to advancing Complete Streets and changing the status quo. When pushback against bike lanes not only results in their successful removal but is seen as a “compromise” with driving (as was the case in Culver City, CA), it’s hard to feel like we have made a big enough dent in realizing the potential of safe and equitable community mobility. While many, many Complete Streets champions across the U.S. are in the trenches with us, it can sometimes take only a small handful of opposition voices to derail a community’s vision, as we recently saw in New Orleans, LA.

The second part of the fight, one we’re steadily chipping away at now, involves dismantling the barriers that stand in the way of doing what we know is the right path. This means tackling decades of decision-making at the federal and state levels to make it easier to make Complete Streets as easy to build as the status quo (if not easier) and to redefine what a successful transportation network looks like. It’s not easy, it’s not fast, and it’s rarely complete. Those comfortable with the status quo offer nuggets of change through small dedicated funding programs or slightly updated guidance. But they don’t challenge the way the majority of funds are spent or require that the updated guidance be implemented across the board. And they definitely don’t begin to tackle the challenge of what happens when leadership at the local level comes up against the inevitable and deadly state-owned arterial running through its borders. While resistance to change is to be expected, some of it is outright opposition from those who either don’t understand what we’re trying to do or are dead set against it.

We can’t waste time questioning whether we’re successful or be distracted from our mission. We need to dig in, to see policies turn into projects and champions turn into leaders. Our transportation system must align with the growing demand for change rather than clinging to outdated transportation philosophies. When we get a Complete Street built, we need to measure its performance, compare it to the status quo, and use that information to push transportation agencies to make it easier to do next time.

We started this movement from the ground up. And our mission calls on us to reverse 70 years of bad practices and redesign 70 years of existing, unsafe infrastructure. When we consider the success of the Complete Streets movement, policies are the right first step; but then communities need the leadership and support necessary to update their systems and create a better future. That’s a fight worth having, one we’re prepared to keep battling, and one we hope others will actively join us in.

Complete Streets