A strong Complete Streets policy allows only clear exceptions (element #4)

As noted in policy element #3, Complete Streets policies are comprehensive and apply to all streets and in all phases of all projects, but there are certain circumstances where exceptions can—and should—be made. But those exceptions must be narrowly and clearly defined, as well as require public notice prior to approval by a high-level official.

Stylized graphic illustrating the 4th element of a complete streets policy: Allows only clear exceptions
Nearly 20 years into the Complete Streets movement, we’re taking a closer look at what makes a strong Complete Streets policy. We are walking through each of the 10 elements used to craft these policies in a series of 10 posts. These elements make up the framework we use to evaluate Complete Streets policies, as we do in our frequent Best Complete Streets Policies report, to be released in May 2023. Find links to these 10 posts at the bottom of this post, or at the home for the Complete Streets Policy Framework.

Why is this element integral to a strong Complete Streets policy?

Complete Streets policies should be comprehensive and apply to all transportation projects in a community, but in certain circumstances, exceptions can—and should—be made. This might seem counterintuitive, especially considering that the strongest Complete Streets policies apply to all projects and all phases (Element #3). But including a set of specific, clear, and limited exceptions actually increases the strength of your policy because it prevents discretionary exceptions in the future, helping to ensure equitable implementation. 

By having a clear and specific list of exceptions in the policy, everyone—transportation staff, policymakers, powerful community members—is limited to that list only. This means no backroom dealings. It means that no one has the discretionary power to exclude certain projects from the applicability of the Complete Streets policy. And residents can hold agency staff and policymakers accountable for adhering to the clearly defined exceptions. In other words, the Complete Streets policy will apply except in the very specific situations listed in the policy.

“The only way exceptions do not turn into a big black hole is by bringing a lot of sunlight to it. So exceptions are used when necessary—not just to bypass the policy. But if you don’t make it clear what you’re trying to do and involve the public in the decision then the exception can be a process by which the intent of your policy is completely undermined.” 

– Beth Osborne, Vice President of Transportation at Smart Growth America.

What does this element look like in practice?

The jurisdictions with the strongest Complete Streets policies 1) clearly specify a list of exceptions (which do not stray from the National Complete Streets Coalition’s approved list of exceptions,) 2) require that any proposed exceptions are made publicly available prior to approval, and 3) designate someone responsible for reviewing and approving exceptions. 

Below is the list of the Coalition’s approved exceptions. The Coalition considers these “approved exceptions” because they have limited potential to weaken the intention of the policy. These exceptions follow the Federal Highway Administration’s guidance on accommodating bicycle and pedestrian travel and/or identified best practices frequently used in existing Complete Streets policies. 

  • Accommodation is not necessary on corridors where specific users are prohibited, such as interstate freeways or pedestrian malls. Exclusion of certain users on particular corridors should not exempt projects from accommodating other permitted users.
  • Cost of accommodation is excessively disproportionate to the need or probable use.
  • A documented absence of current and future need.
  • Emergency repairs such as a water main leak that require an immediate, rapid response; however, temporary accommodations for all modes should still be made. Depending on the severity of the repairs, opportunities to improve multimodal access should still be considered where possible.
  • Transit accommodations are not required where there is no existing or planned transit service. 
  • Routine maintenance of the transportation network that does not change the roadway geometry or operations, such as mowing, sweeping, and spot repair. 
  • Where a reasonable and equivalent project along the same corridor is already programmed to provide facilities exempted from the project at hand. 

In addition to clearly defining appropriate exceptions, the policy must outline a clear process for reviewing and approving them, providing clarity to the staff charged with implementing the policy. 

  • This includes making the proposed exceptions publicly available prior to their review and potential approval. This could mean posting proposed exceptions to a public website that allows comments or including space for discussion on proposed exceptions during public meetings. 
  • It also includes specifying who will be responsible for granting approved exceptions. Ideally, this individual is a part of senior management. 

In the strongest policies, everyone knows what the exceptions are, how they are reviewed and approved, who is responsible for reviewing and approving them, and a clear path for the public or other agencies to offer comments—improving transparency and accountability.

Policy scoring details

In our framework for evaluating and scoring Complete Streets policies, this element is worth a total of 8 out of 100 possible points. 

  • 4 points: Policy includes one or more of the above exceptions—and no others.
    • (2 points) Policy includes any other exceptions, including those that weaken the intent of the Complete Streets policy.
    • (0 points) No mention.
  • 2 points: Policy states who is responsible for approving exceptions.
  • 2 points: Policy requires public notice prior to granting an exception in some form. This could entail a public meeting or an online posting with opportunity for comment.


Learn more about the 10 elements

Click any element to read more about each one, or visit the home for the full Complete Streets Policy Framework:

  1. Establishes commitment and vision
  2. Prioritizes underinvested and underserved communities
  3. Applies to all projects and phases
  4. Allows only clear exceptions
  5. Mandates coordination
  6. Adopts excellent design guidance
  7. Requires proactive land-use planning
  8. Measures progress
  9. Sets criteria for choosing projects
  10. Creates a plan for implementation
Stylized graphic showing illustrated people on a lovely complete street in a random community

Evaluate the strength of your policy

We regularly evaluate and score policies using our policy framework. Now, advocates and policymakers can do the same, using our free and open-source tool to evaluate existing or drafted local, MPO, or state-level Complete Streets policies. Learn more and evaluate your policy >>