Completing Our Streets: It takes more than facts to achieve the Complete Streets conversion

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Nashville, TN Mayor Karl Dean signed a Complete Streets Executive Order in 2010, joined by former Councilmember Erik Cole and former city staffers Toks Omishakin and Chris Bowles. Photo by Gary Layda, City of Nashville.

This post is the second in a twice-monthly series of excerpts from Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, the forthcoming 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. Look for the book out on October 14, 2013.

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 6: Practitioners as Champions

After we started the National Complete Streets Coalition, I spent a lot of time developing a series of focused fact sheets that brought together the best and most specific answers we could find on every topic related to Complete Streets. The website was soon overflowing with reports and resources on every aspect of the benefits of Complete Streets. But somehow they were never enough. They never slaked the hunger from people around the country for very specific information about how to answer a challenging question with an indisputable fact. Over time, I realized I was learning how to overcome barriers not by regurgitating facts but by hearing stories about how others had made change happen.

The tendency of engineers, advocates, and policy makers—of most people, in fact—is to see change as a rational exercise, with facts driving action. Complete Streets are safer streets, and they have plenty of other benefits too. Shouldn’t that be enough? Missing from this equation is the way humans make decisions, change habits, and become infused with a new sense of purpose.

This chapter is about how advocates of Complete Streets, and particularly those who work inside agencies, navigate these murkier waters. It is about how they come to understand power structures and work to institutionalize Complete Streets in their agencies, not simply by providing facts or creating new street cross sections but by building relationships, giving colleagues a visceral understanding of a multimodal streetscape, and helping broaden ownership of a Complete Streets approach.

This is the work of a Complete Streets champion. I’ve encountered these champions over and over again, and their techniques, personalities, and job titles vary widely. What they all have in common is a clarity of purpose, a determination to find a way to remove, soften, or get around obstacles to achieve that purpose, and an ability to bring others along. Champions do not have to be well-known, high-powered officials, although the movement certainly has those as well: Gabe Klein of Chicago (and formerly of Washington, DC) and Janette Sadik-Kahn of New York are celebrated for their roles as champions, transforming not only the departments they lead but their entire cities. Since most people will never reach their level, this book focuses on champions of more modest stature who succeed in driving change inside their agencies, often without holding an official position of influence.

And while the term “champion” may imply one person leading a charge, true success usually means that many champions are operating and that they are succeeding in getting change institutionalized so it will persist after they leave. For example, in New Jersey, consultants, advocates, the state bicycle-pedestrian coordinator, a small-town mayor, and the head of the Department of Transportation are all championing Complete Streets–using their particular skills and networks to reframe the issue, take their colleagues down a new path, and persuade others to join in.

Activities and Attitudes of Champions
Champions generally start with an activity discussed in chapter 4: gaining a full understanding of the way decisions are made. A recent federal report is full of case studies of communities that have taken a Complete Streets approach. Local Policies and Practices That Support Safe Pedestrian Environments concludes that success “has largely been driven by the ability of those involved…to make accurate and clear assessment of the institutional, political, or financial framework at play and adopt a practical approach that fits within that framework.” Gil Peñalosa, who helped his brother Enrique with the transformation of Bogotá, Colombia in the late 1990s and went on to found the group 8-80 Cities, calls these people “doers”–people with a clear vision who don’t just throw up their hands when they come to a barrier but instead seek to understand the root of the problem and then change it.

In California, Chris Ratekin, who oversees the implementation of Caltrans’s Complete Streets policy, Deputy Directive 64, says all the new policies, guidance, and manuals are well and good–but then you have to look at why change still isn’t happening. She says that requires sitting down with other agency staff and working through the details. “I can’t solve all the problems because I come into it with my planning expertise,” she says. “It takes those front-line people, the staff who are in the weeds in those programs, to be able to have those ah-ha perceptions on how their work must change to meet new multimodal objectives.”

This is where inclusive decision making really begins–getting more and more people to feel ownership of Complete Streets, so they can tackle their part of making it a reality. Developing a commitment to a Complete Streets approach among elected officials or practitioners may begin with giving them facts or research that helps allay fears about costs or safety problems. But it is essential to cement a sense of ownership, and that happens through personal experience.

Preorder your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 6, including:

  • Engaging Citizens
  • Engaging Leadership
  • Engaging Colleagues

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition:

Complete Streets