“Complete Streets” are being co-opted to build unsafe streets. Who is at fault?

Saying that the “Complete Streets mindset” is the problem when a transportation agency builds a dangerous high-speed road and calls it a “complete street” is like calling for the repeal of the Clean Air Act when a highway agency claims that adding more lanes will reduce emissions.

by Steve Davis and Beth Osborne for Smart Growth America

A photo of a street with two lanes headed away and a bike lane next to high speed traffic, where the sidewalk has many curb cuts and people are walking toward the camera
An incomplete street in Hyattsville, Maryland where a bike lane has been put directly on a high-speed street with wide lanes, numerous curb cuts, and insufficient safe crossings. Steve Davis/Smart Growth America

In his weekly City Observatory newsletter, Joe Cortright wrote a great piece about “greenwashing” highway projects, focused on plans for an “environmentally-friendly” expansion of Interstate 85 in Georgia:

In short, this is all about generating the perception that GDOT cares about the environment. It doesn’t. It includes environmental concerns in only the vaguest and most procedural senses, not specifying any substantive or measurable goals.  It focuses on options that are all about making driving easier and expanding capacity, with lip service given to alternative modes.  And it doesn’t even bother to acknowledge pressing environmental problems.

As Kevin DeGood says here, “You can’t just drop a few billion dollars on a highway widening out to the horizon line without at least mentioning the environment.”  Americans care about different things than they did in 1960, so the DOT playbook has changed. 

So when state DOTs sell highway widenings today, they claim benefits like reducing emissions (by theoretically eliminating traffic), improving safety (by adding new lanes,) repairing damage to Black and Brown neighborhoods (by suggesting “someone else” pay for a cap over the widened interstate,) or boosting the economy (by saving every traveler a few imaginary pennies per day), to name just a few.

Many of us know that these claims are ludicrous and that they’re using these popular concepts to justify and spin their projects. People should criticize the transportation agencies that do these things. But it would be ridiculous and insulting to criticize the environmentalists, safety advocates or community members seeking cleaner air, connected thriving communities, and safer streets. 

Yet, that’s just what one notable national organization did when a woman died on an unsafe street that local transportation agencies had recently “improved” and dubbed a “Complete Street.” 

After the death of Hellen Jorgensen in Hyattsville, MD, Strong Towns analyzed Ager Road and targeted not the agencies responsible for the design who are abusing a term they clearly fail to understand, but the advocates who have spent the last 20 years advocating for a paradigm shift in how we design and build our streets. (The specific transportation agencies involved in designing and implementing this street design are never mentioned.) 

Strong Towns, who we know and deeply respect—as exemplified by our own Beth Osborne’s laudatory quote on the back of Chuck Marohn’s latest terrific book—is being deeply inconsistent with how they respond to those who co-opt good ideas to do bad things. They routinely (and effectively!) call out the traffic engineers claiming safety or emissions benefits for “moving more cars faster.” But in this case, they blame the advocates who would agree wholeheartedly that this specific “stroad” in Maryland is only complete in its failure.

Screenshot from google maps of Ager Road, with a slip lane curving through a green painted bike lane.
Screenshot pulled by Strong Towns of current conditions on Ager Road, where a slip lane curves directly through a painted bike lane. We wrote about the danger presented by slip lanes for Strong Towns a few years ago.

Trying to figure out who “owns” a term is a frustrating distraction that shifts attention away from the important struggle against our outdated approach to designing streets. But it’s inherent to our bankrupt approach to transportation to get those who oppose the status quo arguing with one another rather than banding together to fight against it. Chuck would agree:

If they haven’t already, Strong Towns will learn, as we have, that as their movement grows more popular that good ideas which challenge the status quo frequently get co-opted by the status quo in an attempt to preserve it. Just like the so-called local “smart growth” groups who fight against zoning changes to allow more types of housing to be built for more people (covered here by Strong Towns.)

Joe Cortright noted this pervasive challenge: 

Highway engineers have debased and perverted many potentially meaningful terms like “multi-modal” and “pedestrian infrastructure.”  Co-opting complete streets is safety-washing, just as highway departments have engaged in woke-washing with phony equity claims, and green-washing with performative and meaningless “planning and environmental linkages.”

That’s one reason we routinely evaluate and score Complete Streets policies to show which communities are making a concerted effort and which are merely paying lip service to the idea. Despite how they were characterized by Strong Towns, Complete Streets has never been a top-down effort. There’s never been some silver bullet of hoped-for federal legislation that will “change everything” quickly and painlessly. It’s an arduous effort to change procedure, standards and culture, because Complete Streets are more of a process, not a single specific street design

Screenshot that says: Complete Streets is a process and approach. Not just a product or single type of street. Complete Streets is an approach to planning, designing and building streets that enables safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities. This approach also emphasizes the needs of those who have experienced systemic underinvestment, or those whose needs have not been met through a traditional transportation approach, such as older adults, people living with disabilities, people who don’t have access to vehicles, and Black, Native, and Hispanic or Latino/a/x communities.

The National Complete Streets Coalition advocates for those changes by encouraging the adoption of Complete Streets policies, but we know that’s not enough. We also evaluate those policies against our framework to incentivize strong policies, we support and develop local champions, build demonstration projects and report on best practices as well as how our roads are Dangerous by Design (which Strong Towns contributed to last year!) In fact, we have received criticism from other national advocacy groups for failing to advocate strongly for new federal biking and walking programs because we have a more ambitious goal of changing the entire transportation program to make Complete Streets the default approach.

This movement desperately needs those critiquing the system mercilessly from the outside, as well as those empowering advocates and equipping changemakers inside the system with the policy and technical knowledge they need. But we must recognize that we’re fighting the same battle. 

The Crash Analysis Studio from Strong Towns is a powerful way to show the importance of street design to advocates, engineers, and local elected officials. (As someone [Steve] who has biked my kids on this specific road and took photos nearby for Dangerous by Design last year, I eagerly listened in a few weeks ago for this analysis.) Over the last few years we have tirelessly worked to spotlight the role of street design in the skyrocketing deaths of people struck and killed while walking, which gets routinely neglected in favor of yet more talk about reflective clothing, driver behavior, enforcement, and ineffective advertising campaigns.

If Strong Towns is willing to stop blaming Complete Streets advocates for what happens when the entrenched status quo appropriates the term, we would love to help them expose other dangerous wastes of money like Ager Road in Maryland—and help them call those who are truly responsible to account.

In a few short weeks, the National Complete Streets Coalition will celebrate a handful of places with the strongest Complete Streets policies; policies that represent a vital step on the path to building safer, people-first streets. We will celebrate a grassroots movement of local advocates who are working hard to upend the “speed over safety” status quo on their streets. We will celebrate these places while also challenging the mediocre ones and calling on other places to rethink their approach and join a growing movement for streets that serve the needs of everyone.

Going forward, we all need to keep our attention squarely focused on the transportation agencies and engineers who prioritize speed above all else and call it safety, who do the same old thing and call it something new, who build dangerous streets and call them complete.