Completing Rural Highways: Making the case

Gaining widespread support for Complete Streets projects can be a challenge. Agencies sometimes face resistance from within or they face opposition from local businesses and community members. Smart Growth America and the State Smart Transportation Initiative worked with practitioners to identify obstacles to making the case for Complete Streets and illustrate how their peers have found ways to overcome them.

From November 2022 to May 2023, Smart Growth America worked with the State Smart Transportation Initiative to host a series of four virtual workshops for staff at state departments of transportation (DOTs) to discuss challenges and strategies for implementing Complete Streets on state-owned rural roads. This work was completed in partnership with CDC’s Active People, Healthy Nation℠ Initiative. Learn more here.
A painted bike lane lines a narrow road

Challenges to making the case

1. Not everyone understands the benefits of Complete Streets.

There is often more to consider on Complete Streets projects, especially in rural areas—additional capital costs for things like sidewalks and markings, maintenance obligations, and sometimes the loss of parking or vehicle travel lanes. Compared to conventional highway projects, which often have the singular benefit of reducing crashes or improving traffic flow, the benefits of Complete Streets projects can be difficult to quantify or communicate to various audiences.

2. Existing guidelines and design standards don’t always make Complete Streets easy.

Applying Complete Streets principles often requires innovative design solutions that are not covered in existing highway design guidelines, and sometimes even stray from those traditional design principles. While Complete Streets often conform to current guidelines, road designers may need to work harder to meet existing standards or justify deviating from them. We even heard from workshop participants that bicycle and pedestrian facilities can be seen as an added risk by state DOTs, simply because they encourage active transportation in areas that are currently unsafe.

3. There is a common perception that elements of Complete Streets are not needed.

Complete Streets elements can seem frivolous or unnecessary in places where not many people walk or bike. This is sometimes simply because there is no data about trips that already occur, but it is often because the existing conditions are too unsafe or unpleasant, which prevents people from walking or biking to begin with. Moreover, it sometimes takes several incremental projects to build a fully connected network. Those isolated, one-off efforts can seem wasteful without a comprehensive vision for the community.

How agencies are making the case

1. Illustrate the benefits.

Agencies can make the case for the benefits of Complete Streets projects using language that is meaningful and accessible to the communities they serve. For example, the Minnesota DOT outlines the benefits in terms of: 1) improved safety, 2) advancing transportation equity, 3) strengthening local economies, and 4) building healthy, climate-resilient communities. They also commissioned a study of Complete Street projects in nine small cities looking at the economic impacts and gaining insight to maximize the benefits.

Walk audits and demonstrations projects can help make tangible the benefits of Complete Streets. Walk audits give road designers and community members an opportunity to experience the challenges of existing highways firsthand and think about potential solutions. Demonstration projects can be helpful for understanding the benefits of a project and overcoming concerns about its potential impacts on traffic, safety, or local business activity, and also help to build relationships within the community. The Massachusetts DOT installed a temporary multi-use path at a narrow Interstate underpass, building better relationships with local officials and business owners in the process.

2. Demonstrate the hidden need.

During the pandemic, more people walked, biked, and rolled than ever, pointing to an often hidden desire (often called “latent demand”) for opportunities to travel outside of a car, which is repressed when driving is the only safe, comfortable, or convenient travel option. More transportation agencies now recognize that by providing safe and convenient facilities, they can unlock this demand and see increases in the number of people walking and rolling to essential destinations. Measuring or estimating this demand, however, is much different than obtaining traffic or pedestrian counts. It requires knowledge of where there are people, and where there are nearby activities or attractions.

Massachusetts has produced tools for estimating the potential for walkable trips and everyday biking, based partly on de-identified data from cell phones showing where there are already many short vehicle trips, along with considerations about demographics and access to nearby activities. North Carolina’s approach includes a map of potential demand for project managers, using a weighted scoring system that considers nearby population, jobs, and areas with limited vehicle access.

3. Provide guidance and examples.

Complete Streets projects often have design considerations that are not addressed in traditional highway guidelines, such as landscaping concerns, bicycle facilities and bus stops. Agency staff can rely on available guidance from FHWA, AASHTO, ITE, NACTO and often other internal documents. Agencies can also take steps to make Complete Streets the norm, rather than the exception. The Massachusetts DOT has done this through several engineering directives and new design criteria issued in 2021; Caltrans issued a Director’s Policy in 2021; and the Washington State DOT issued a Project Delivery Memo in 2022.

We also heard from workshop participants that success stories of other Complete Streets projects are especially helpful, particularly when they reflect a more rural context. Public engagement that incorporates visualizations and jargon-free language can also go a long way in removing barriers and gaining public support, even though they often require more time and resources.

4. Find the right messengers.

As with any transportation project or major development, opponents of the project are often the most vocal and can play an outsized role in shaping project outcomes. Transportation agencies can benefit from working more closely with local authorities and engaging local community members to hear not just from those with concerns, but also proponents and those who can offer constructive input to help shape the project. Through this process, there are likely to be local advocates, political leaders, and business leaders who can serve as key project liaisons and messengers within the community.

Learn more

State DOTs in Massachusetts and Washington used new tools and effective communication to help make the case for Complete Streets. Read our case studies to find out how.

Making the case in Massachusetts and Washington

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided support for this project under cooperative agreement OT18-1802 supporting the Active People, Healthy NationSM Initiative, a national initiative led by the CDC to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027. Learn more: The findings and conclusions in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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