Completing Our Streets: Closing the gap between policy and practice

Boulder, CO
Boulder, CO has made a concerted effort over the past 20 years to implement Complete Streets as part of everyday decision making. Photo by Barbara McCann.

This post is the fourth in a twice-monthly series of excerpts from Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, the new book from Island Press by Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition. The book discusses the keys to the movement’s success, and how places and practitioners in the United States are tackling the challenges of putting a new transportation paradigm into daily practice.

All National Complete Streets Coalition Platinum Partners and those who upgrade to the next Partnership level will receive a signed copy of Completing Our Streets. Become a Coalition Partner today!

From Chapter 3: Closing the Gap Between Policy and Practice

While adoption of a Complete Streets policy is the first step on a clear path for changing transportation practice, the attempt to marshal political and community support behind a new approach to transportation planning too often flounders once the policy is in place. This is particularly true when the effort has been made primarily from the outside, when advocates or lawmakers have created and adopted a policy with resistance or only lukewarm interest from the transportation agency that has to implement it. The advocates’ euphoria may wear off quickly when absolutely nothing happens inside the department after the policy passes. Or the disillusionment may come more slowly, after many months of working with the agency’s staff and leadership only to find that the changes made are minor or have been blocked by midlevel management.

Advocates have discovered that lining up outside support is necessary but not sufficient to achieve true, lasting change inside transportation agencies. This is not a problem limited to Complete Streets policies; public policy scholars of all stripes have recognized that the weak link in a policy initiative is frequently implementation, with a seamless march from policy directive to practice being the exception rather than the rule. During the policy adoption process, many people involved will have experienced a profound shift in their view of the purpose of transportation projects; working together to write and pass the policy, they have built new relationships with one another while building a new, multimodal vision. They have set a new agenda and given the transportation agency a new problem to solve. The trouble is, this transformation has not fully engaged the people who are now responsible for turning the vision into reality, the people who work inside the government transportation agency, or the consultants they hire. These people may not be motivated to change, and as previously discussed, they may be oriented more to building projects than to following policy directives. And even if they are motivated, it is easy to underestimate the extent of the changes being asked of them.

Once the policy is adopted, essentially a whole new effort must begin in order to bring it into daily practice. Too often, it just doesn’t happen.

How Policies Help with Implementation
The first question to ask about a lack of action is whether the policy itself has not given enough direction or created enough accountability to result in real change. The National Complete Streets Coalition recommends 10 elements of an “ideal” Complete Streets policy: all are intended to aid in institutionalization. The Coalition publishes a ranking of written policy content. For example, the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s internal policy scores among the highest, getting the maximum 16 points for addressing implementation planning, and a total score of 85 out of 100. In contrast, Virginia’s policy received 4 implementation points, and a total score of 51.

Two of the scored policy elements are directed specifically at creating accountability in the implementation process, by naming implementation next steps and establishing new performance measures. Implementation steps may include naming a responsible agency or person; creating an advisory committee; or requiring a formal implementation plan and annual progress reports. The measures of success can be quantitative or qualitative. For example, Indianapolis, IN’s policy requires quantitative measures ranging from crash rates to percentage of transit stops made accessible with sidewalks and curb ramps. New Hope, MN’s policy suggests qualitative measures, such as tracking the compliments and complaints received from residents.

It is also important that the core policy statement sets a very clear intent that can help guide future action. For example, it can state, as Bozeman, MT’s policy does: “The City of Bozeman will plan for, design, construct, operate, and maintain appropriate facilities for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit vehicles and riders, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities in all new construction and retrofit or reconstruction projects subject to the exceptions contained herein.” Such a clear statement can be returned to again and again by the people working inside the agency, setting a clear direction as decisions are made about new systems and specific projects.

Policy writers also need to avoid sliding from setting a clear direction into spelling everything out. The seemingly logical urge is to write or update the policy so it will create a legally binding standard and “force” the agency to change. Public health lawyers who cut their teeth in the tobacco wars have written model legislative policies that prescribe the addition of “Complete Streets Infrastructure” to roadway projects, listing the specific items to be added. But changing street design is much more complex than banning smoking. And taking legal action when a road design does not meet expectations is difficult, expensive, relatively rare, and sometimes prohibited. Directing an agency to take up the practice of building Complete Streets means they will be making changes that get at the heart of the professional training, attitudes, and orientation of transportation practitioners. Elected officials can’t legislate that transformation, and they shouldn’t tread into the territory of prescriptive street design. The responsibility of the elected officials is to redefine the problem and then direct the transportation professionals to use their expertise to solve it.

Order your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 3, including:

  • Getting Beyond the Limits of a Written Policy
  • Safety is Subversive

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition:

Complete Streets