Complete Streets are a climate solution

Complete Streets advances safety for all users (with prioritization given to active modes of transportation), supports local residents and businesses, and combats the inequities associated with past approaches to transportation. But Complete Streets have an added benefit—they can help communities address the climate crisis in a way that is resource-efficient, equitable, and community-oriented.

A cyclist travels down a bike lane on DC's 14th street. In the background is a sidewalk with parked scooters, patio seating for a local business, and a colorful mural.
Flickr photo by Ted Eytan.

About the Complete Streets movement

Conventional approaches to transportation have aimed to move cars quickly, even (and often) at the expense of safety for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and car drivers alike. The term “Complete Streets,” popularized by the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America in the early 2000s, is used to describe policies that enable safe access to streets for users of all ages and abilities. The Complete Streets movement looks to put people, regardless of their mode of choice, back at the center of transportation planning and design. Learn more about Complete Streets here > >

Complete Streets mitigate climate change

Complete Streets are inherently a mobility solution to transportation issues plaguing communities. These policies simultaneously address the effects of climate change, which also increasingly threaten the health, safety, and economic vitality of many communities.

Current road infrastructure reduces safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, which means driving a car is often the safest and quickest way to get around. In addition to being a financial burden and increasing the risk of those outside vehicles, our built environment encourages people to use their cars rather than walk, bike, or use public transportation, despite all the carbon that cars release into the atmosphere. This course of action is unsustainable; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2021, the transportation sector was the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., with over 20% of transportation emissions coming from passenger vehicles.

Streets that prioritize vehicular speed also encourage people to live far away from their jobs, friends, grocery stores, and other amenities, while still being able to quickly access them. As a result, urban and suburban environments sprawl out into surrounding areas. In many places, that means cutting down trees, paving over dirt, and otherwise disturbing rural and natural areas—including environmentally sensitive areas prone to floods, wildfires, or other natural disasters. This habitat destruction creates more greenhouse gas emissions by removing plants, fungi, and bacteria that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. It also throws ecosystems out of balance, which can have wide-reaching effects on local weather patterns, water supply, and more.

Complete Streets, however, encourage people to use other methods to get around and reevaluate the land-use decisions that contribute to urban sprawl. When bike lanes are protected, crosswalks are prioritized, sidewalks are shaded, and other mobility improvements are made, people are less likely to use a personal vehicle, and that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. It also has health benefits; with less car usage, air quality and noise levels both improve, while the physical activity required for walking and biking has benefits for people’s physical and mental health. With less sprawl, habitats for native plants and wildlife, including crucial species like pollinators, are preserved. Complete Streets allow people to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.

Complete Streets help communities adapt to a changing climate

Current street design doesn’t just encourage sprawl and habitat loss; it makes existing urban and suburban environments harder to live in. Prioritizing vehicular speed often results in wide roads with limited space for anything else. These street designs result in an Urban Heat Island with daytime temperatures up to 7°F higher than nearby areas, which is especially dangerous for pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transportation users who are more exposed to extreme temperatures. And the wide expanses of asphalt also prevent water from permeating into the ground below, worsening flooding issues and increasing the risk of sewer overflows into nearby lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water.

But Complete Streets, which often include bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and medians and buffers separating traffic, reduce the area covered by asphalt and other impervious surfaces. This helps prevent water from collecting on transportation infrastructure and overloading stormwater management systems, while also reducing the urban heat reradiated by streets into their surroundings. Complete Streets that integrate plantlife can provide added benefits. Plants filter pollutants from the air, reduce temperatures by providing shade and releasing water vapor from their leaves, and help absorb excess rainwater. Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters initiative, for example, has resulted in the absorption of nearly three billion gallons of water that likely would have otherwise flooded streets and caused sewage to overflow into rivers.

Climate change continues to threaten communities with more severe heat islands and stormwater flooding. By reducing the damages inflicted by these climate hazards, Complete Streets policies can play an important role in helping communities adapt to this new reality. These benefits work with other elements of Complete Streets, like shaded bus stops, protected bus lanes, or wide sidewalks help ensure that community members will be able to continue to travel safely and comfortably well into the future. 

And when a natural disaster, like a hurricane, tornado, or wildfire, does directly strike, Complete Streets provide multiple modes through which people can evacuate. This reduces traffic congestion, allowing more people to quickly reach safety, while also allowing emergency responders and disaster relief services to more quickly go where they are most needed. And by providing space for pedestrians and bicyclists, Complete Streets create more opportunities for community members to interact with one another and receive the help they need.

Complete Streets are a climate solution for the present and future

Communities now are suffering from multiple crises: a changing climate, rising pedestrian fatalities, and social and economic inequality. But Complete Streets provide an avenue for addressing many of the issues that communities face, first and foremost by allowing local residents to play a larger role in determining their community’s future. Urban, suburban, and rural areas across the U.S. can and should utilize Complete Streets policies to revitalize and protect their communities.

The National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America provides further research, guidance, and resources on Complete Streets and their implementation.

Climate Change Complete Streets