Completing Our Streets: Strategies

This post is the eighth and final in our 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.

A decade ago, in early December 2003, the term “Complete Streets” was first coined. Today’s excerpt celebrates the many Complete Streets supporters and active Coalition members that helped found the movement and continue to advance the adoption of Complete Streets policies and practices across the country.

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 2: How The Complete Streets Movement Succeeds

Many people and publications have introduced the Complete Streets concept by defining a “complete” street as a roadway that is designed and operated for the safety of everyone using it—whether by car or bike, foot or bus. This appealing definition tells only part of the story: the Complete Streets movement is at its heart a policy initiative that seeks to change the way all roads are built in the United States. The movement’s success is rooted not in the simple definition of a complete street but in three key strategies aimed at changing transportation practice. These strategies focus on shifting a discussion centered on project design to instead address values and policy, building a broad base of support for policy change, and, finally, creating a clear path to transform everyday practice.

Building the Coalition: Gathering Political Support
The Complete Streets movement was started by bicycle advocates but was quickly taken up and advanced by people working in public health, activists for older adults, proponents of smart growth, public transportation agencies, disability advocates, and even real estate agents. All of these groups can make persuasive arguments about why they want a more diverse street environment. Bicycle and pedestrian advocates want safer streets that will encourage more people to walk and ride. Public health officials, driven by the obesity crisis, point to research that shows that people who live in places with sidewalks, bike lanes, and safe bus stops get more daily physical activity. Older adults want to be able to “age in place,” which means designing streets to be safer for older drivers to navigate and for older pedestrians who may need more time to cross the street safely. Smart growth advocates see Complete Streets as an essential element in changing communities to be more compact and more sustainable. Public transportation agencies use the streets to move a high volume of people and are starting to push for a higher priority for their vehicles and passengers. Advocates for disabled people are tired of disconnected curb ramps and a lack of audible signals. Real estate agents have come to understand that the higher-quality street environments brought by Complete Streets raise and sustain home values. And transportation professionals who want better outcomes are also speaking up, via professional associations representing engineers, planners, bicycle and pedestrian professionals, and landscape architects.

The wide variety of constituents speaking on one issue moves elected officials to act. In Spokane, Washington, city council member Jon Snyder, who had championed a policy for the city, described the dramatic council meeting at which the policy was approved: “A lot of the testimony last night focused on the health and safety aspects of Complete Streets. We heard from disabled veterans, folks from Lighthouse for the Blind, grade school teachers, physicians, neighborhood representatives, and small business owners imploring us to help make our streets safer for all users and to address the epidemics of obesity and diabetes that result from inactivity. In all, more than forty people testified and [the state land use advocacy group] Futurewise turned in a petition with an additional 500 names in support.”

That 2011 city council meeting was one local outcome of a coalition-building strategy that started years earlier at the national level. It started when I invited groups to join a task force to get a Complete Streets measure into the federal transportation bill. After the bill passed in 2005 without a Complete Streets provision, the task force became the National Complete Streets Coalition. We agreed on a definition of the term Complete Streets and set a goal of spreading policies not just at the federal level but in states and localities: our first target was to achieve policies in five states and twenty-five cities.

The Coalition is steered by a committee that includes bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups (e.g., America Bikes), public interest groups (e.g., AARP and the American Public Transportation Association), practitioner organizations (e.g., the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the American Planning Association, and the American Society of Landscape Architects), and public health groups (e.g., Active Living by Design, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota), as well as the National Association of Realtors. Smart Growth America, a group that supports more sustainable planning, hosted the Coalition in the early years (and now staffs it as one of its programs). Consulting firms that offer multimodal planning and design services are also important supporters of the Coalition, and groups as diverse as the YMCA and the Natural Resources Defense Council have worked to advance the Complete Streets concept.

From the beginning, this was not just a letterhead coalition. Member groups of the steering committee, the bicycle industry association Bikes Belong, consulting firms, and other interest groups made financial commitments for the coordinating work, participated in clarifying the vision, and launched and staffed their own Complete Streets research and advocacy projects. This was not some new, separate organization they were supporting; it was a concept that each fully owned and embraced. Under the advice of Randy Neufeld, the founder of Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance and one of the strategic minds behind the national bicycle movement, I kept organizational structure to a minimum so we could focus on spreading the concept. The Coalition’s purposefully loose structure encouraged the widest possible ownership, and it showed in the variety of products and initiatives it started to produce. AARP launched the first major research project to develop a Complete Streets manual, Planning Complete Streets for an Aging America. The American Planning Association issued a Planners Advisory Service report on Complete Streets best practices. The Association of Bicycle and Pedestrian Professionals worked with me to develop a workshop program and find and train instructors to provide it.

I was a student of Everett Rogers’s diffusion innovation theory, which holds that the development of a highly effective diffusion network is essential to the transmission of a new idea or practice. Rogers’s diffusion model stresses the importance of peer networks and champions; the closer the champions are to the targeted adopters, the more effective they will be. On our shoestring budget, the Coalition pursued a strategy that depended on each member using its own communications networks to promote the benefits of Complete Streets. Each group, from AARP to YMCA, reached out to its constituency and engaged its strengths in working for policy adoption at the federal, state, and local levels. The strong relationships between the messengers and those receiving the message meant speedy dissemination. The Complete Streets concept has spread so quickly and thoroughly in part because so many people first heard about it from peers they respect.

As the diverse national Coalition members wrote reports and articles and made presentations at their conferences, their state and local affiliates turned to leading policy adoption campaigns. AARP joined up with health and bicycle groups in Hawaii and got to work on one of the first legislative campaigns, and then followed it with more in several states; bicycle advocates launched one in Illinois. In some smaller jurisdictions, such as Colorado Springs, Colorado, transportation professionals helped add Complete Streets provisions to master and strategic plans. The health insurance firm Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota added Complete Streets policies to their active living initiative, working with local transportation professionals toward policy adoption; their efforts culminated in a successful state legislative campaign led by a local environmental group, Fresh Energy. YMCA worked on policy campaigns as part of its Pioneering Healthy Communities initiative; the Safe Routes to School National Partnership made the passage of Complete Streets policy a fundamental part of its strategy.

All of this activity meant that the Coalition soon surpassed its early target of five state and twenty-five local policies. You could theorize that the Complete Streets concept took off because it clearly defined a problem, identified a good solution, and was therefore adopted–that would be a rational view of the public policy process. But public policy researchers have found that this is not how change happens. Policy making is essentially a political battle over what values will prevail, and ultimately over the allocation of public resources. Complete Streets policy initiatives make that discussion of values explicit, but more importantly, they build strong coalitions–essentially political power–to support what is in the end a cultural and institutional change.

The need to build a network of support extends into the transportation agencies and the transportation profession. The policies give support to the practitioners who are already trying to change old ways from within—they need the backing of their leaders as they upend tradition and create new ways of doing business. They need the clarity of the policy to help the community to understand, affirm, and support the new approach. This is why the Complete Streets movement has been taken up with such enthusiasm not only by the advocacy interests but also by planners, engineers, landscape architects, public works directors, and the myriad of professionals involved in transportation planning.

Order your copy of Completing Our Streets to read more from Chapter 2, including:

  • Spreading the Word: A New Frame
  • Getting It Right: A Clear Path

Related resources from the National Complete Streets Coalition:

Complete Streets