El Paso: From good intentions to great policy

For over a decade, the City of El Paso’s vision of having safe travel for all mobility users and promoting active transportation had fallen short. In the face of continuing street safety, health, mobility, and other challenges, a diverse coalition of advocates worked with city planners and decision makers to strengthen and improve the way the City of El Paso designs and builds its streets. Their top-scoring Complete Streets policy was adopted unanimously in 2022.

An elevated view of a two-lane shared-use path next to a two lane road with mountains in the background

A quick-build project in El Paso put Piedras Street on a “road diet,” giving pedestrians a safer, more comfortable place to walk and shop. Photo by Joaquin Rodriguez.

This story is one of four features pulled from the Best Complete Streets Policies 2023. Profiling four communities with some of the strongest policies, each story goes into detail about how that specific policy was developed, why it scored so highly, and how everyone involved navigated the barriers on the way to adoption.

Read the full report and other case studies at smartgrowthamerica.org/best-complete-streets

graphic of el paso policy scores

Click here to view the policy text. 

Part I: Background

A large, majority-Hispanic city located along the Texas-Mexico border, El Paso has increased in physical size over the last decade, even as its population has stagnated. This change is due to development patterns that encourage sprawl—patterns that persist despite smart land-use and transportation goals that have been on the books for over a decade.

As car-oriented development continued, concerns about the health of El Paso residents grew. El Paso has a relatively high number of residents with diabetes, but its road design makes it hard to get out and get active—one key measure for preventing diabetes—because the city is filled with wide, dangerous, sprawling arterial roads that are unsafe and hostile for walking and rolling.

A man pushes a woman in a wheelchair inside a sidewalk protected by bollards

Two El Paso residents travel along a wide sidewalk. Screen capture from the El Paso Complete Streets Coalition street audit training video.

The city has also grown consistently more deadly for people walking, outpacing the increase in deaths in other metro areas. In 2019, El Paso was ranked the 38th most dangerous city in the nation for pedestrians, with 173 pedestrians killed between 2008 and 2017. By 2021, El Paso jumped up to the 20th most dangerous city for pedestrians, and in 2022, they were ranked the 18th deadliest metro area in the nation for pedestrians in Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design report. As city leaders established Vision Zero and other safe streets initiatives, local advocates pushed for further change to realize those goals, including complementary policies to work alongside El Paso’s commitment to Vision Zero—such as a Complete Streets policy.

Part II: Road to adoption

timeline of the el paso policy progress

In response to the rising traffic fatalities and health concerns in the community, the El Paso Complete Streets Coalition formed in the summer of 2020, but it would take two more years for a policy to be adopted. Led by the American Heart Association, with additional community engagement and education support through a Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the coalition prioritized involvement of diverse users from underserved communities throughout El Paso, especially people from communities most impacted by the region’s dangerous roadways. They focused on engaging a wide range of community stakeholders and all relevant city departments to ensure everyone had a voice in the process, build trust and buy-in, and set the Complete Streets policy up for success.

In addition to educating and drawing attention to the need for Complete Streets in El Paso, the coalition researched other Complete Streets policies from across the country for model policies and best practices.

The City of Tucson, demographically and climatically similar to El Paso, adopted a standout Complete Streets policy in 2019, which the El Paso coalition used as a starting point. They modified their draft with input from community stakeholders, including city staff and leadership, and with the help of technical assistance from the National Complete Streets Coalition and the Safe Routes Partnership. The National Complete Streets Coalition’s Complete Streets Policy Framework was another resource that guided the coalition toward a strong draft policy.

Having an active and diverse membership with representation from local, state, and national organizations helped the coalition build relationships and gain ground with the city. At the same time, the city developed more capacity to dive into El Paso’s land- use and transportation needs, thanks in part to the creation of a new transportation division outside of the more operations- focused Streets and Maintenance Division—the Capital Improvement Department. Even after taking steps to build support with necessary stakeholders, the coalition and its allies hit roadblocks on the way to policy adoption.

Some city staff were concerned about the administrative burden of a new policy and standards for street design, in addition to the challenge of securing funding to cover the costs for street design changes. Complete Streets advocates focused on communicating the benefits these changes can provide and how they aligned with other citywide goals, like improving safety. To address the concerns about cost, some city officials found it was useful to focus on the long-term cost implications of not adopting Complete Streets. By explaining why a short-term minor increase in expenses (about three to four percent) would ultimately be worthwhile if the city is going to achieve its long-term goals.

“For new streets, we’re issuing debt for 20-30 years. That means the street won’t change for 20-30 years. A dedicated bike lane now is the cheapest it’s going to be,” said El Paso Transportation Planning Administrator Joaquin Rodriguez.

Logo of the El Paso Complete Streets Coalition depicts a variety of travelers walking, biking, and rolling.The pandemic further stalled progress towards the adoption of a policy, as the focus of city leadership understandably shifted. However, the partnerships the coalition formed remained strong and nimble, adapting to a host of virtual community forums and utilizing opportunities, such as the local news, to continue to make the case and highlight the need for Complete Streets.

The coalition’s hard work paid off. With help from Complete Streets champions on the city council like City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, and support from the mayor, city manager, city plan commission and other key city staff, the city council unanimously adopted the policy in 2022, setting in place a strong foundation for a safer, healthier El Paso.

The El Paso Complete Streets policy earned a top score thanks to the hardworking members of the El Paso Complete Streets Coalition. Membership included AARP Texas, Action for Healthy Kids, the American Heart Association, the Center for Community Health Impact, Centro San Vicente, CityHealth, El Paso Border Coalition for Fitness, El Paso Diabetes Association, El Paso Independent School District, Frontera Land Alliance, Green Hope Project, LiveActive EP, Medical Center of the Americas, Moms on Board, Paso del Norte Health Foundation, Paso del Norte Trail, Podium Finish, Quantum Engineering Consultants, Race El Paso, Rio Grande Area Agency on Aging, Texas Tech University Health Science Center, University Medical Center of El Paso, Velo Paso, Volar Center for Independent Living, and the YMCA.

Part III: What makes El Paso’s policy great

An oblique elevated view of a bike boulevard on Robinson Avenue with white bike symbols

A bike boulevard on Robinson Avenue uses white bike symbols (and traffic circles like the one on the horizon) to signal that bicycle travel is prioritized here. Photo by Joaquin Rodriguez.

The El Paso Complete Streets policy establishes a clear vision and intent, building upon the goals the city established over a decade ago. With a focus on boosting equitable access, enhancing roadway safety, improving public health, and reducing emissions, the policy “directly supports the transportation goals outlined in Plan El Paso and the [the 2012] Livable City Sustainability Plan ‘to become the least car-dependent city in the Southwest through meaningful travel options and land-use patterns that support walkability, livability, and sustainability.’”

In its implementation plan, the policy outlines how it plans to prioritize underinvested communities. El Paso’s engagement process requires inclusion of historically marginalized voices and projects that serve vulnerable users will be prioritized first. The engagement process heavily emphasizes “going to the people,” through block parties, pop-up demonstrations of proposed street redesigns, and other activities that meet people where they are already likely to convene.

“Each of these groups are either at higher risk of injury or death while walking or biking and/or more likely to walk, bike or use public transit than the population as a whole and, therefore, need to be considered specifically when improving the transportation environment.”

— El Paso Complete Streets Policy

Vulnerable users identified in the policy included low-income residents, people of color, senior residents, children, youth, people with disabilities, and people without access to a car.

El Paso’s policy also emphasizes the importance of community context and proactive land-use planning. Addressing the city’s current development patterns and how these impact travel options, the policy calls upon the city to “review and, in coordination with our development community, revise land- use policies, plans, zoning ordinances, and/or other relevant documents … to incorporate the vision of the Complete Streets policy.”

Part IV: Putting the policy into practice

Passing the policy alone wasn’t enough to bring change. The first step on El Paso’s road to implementation was to facilitate coordination between city departments, agencies, and members of the community.

An elevated view of a two-lane shared-use path next to a two lane road with mountains in the background

A two-lane shared-use path reserves space for pedestrians and cyclists along Robinson Avenue. Photo by Joaquin Rodriguez.

El Paso’s Technical Review Committee is made up of chairs from multiple city departments, plus Sun Metro, the Health Department, the Public Health Department, and the Active Living Initiative. This committee oversees internal implementation of the policy, including the successful coordination of all departments. They work alongside the Mobility Advisory Committee, made up of a diverse set of roadway users, to review policy exceptions, prioritize and select projects, allocate funding, and organize engagement around Complete Streets projects. These two groups bring in valuable insight, with practical experience on planning and transportation decisions from the Technical Review Committee and knowledge of the needs and values of the community from the Mobility Advisory Committee.

The city has started work on multiple pilot projects—often a good way to start quickly and get people comfortable with new ideas—measuring the impacts before and after each project was implemented. This is a small snapshot of how progress will be measured in the years ahead. Among the data the city evaluates are average travel speeds, impact on level of service and number of vehicle trips, and pedestrian choice models. Qualitative data, such as surveys and interviews, will further inform city decision-making by highlighting the experiences of individual users.

Information on how implementation is going will be publicly available online thanks to a new website, Elevate El Paso. As the hub for the Capital Improvement Department’s community engagement activities, this website allows members of the El Paso community to remain informed about Complete Streets progress and other roadway safety measures.

“We are proud of El Paso for adopting one of the best Complete Streets policies in the country but now the real work begins. We are committed to continuing our partnership with the city to equitably implement the policy and are excited that together we will build a safer and more healthy community for El Pasoans of all ages, abilities and walks of life for years to come.”

—Louie Salazar, Public Health Program Manager | American Heart Association

Part V: Lessons learned

El Paso’s new, top-ranking Complete Streets policy shows what’s possible with a strong coalition and a shared goal for safer, healthier, and more convenient transportation options.

Members of the Complete Streets Coalition against a wall in front of balloons after passage of the policy

Members of the Complete Streets Coalition after the passage of the Complete Streets policy. Photo courtesy of the American Heart Association.

Build a strong coalition and find your allies. The El Paso Complete Streets Coalition included members of the community who had firsthand experience of the difficulties of traveling in El Paso. They were joined by local, state, and national organizations with expertise in a variety of fields (health, environment, active transportation, disability, education, and more). This wealth of knowledge and expertise helped the coalition earn the respect, trust, and support of local leaders.

Take advantage of every opportunity to share your message. It took the coalition two years to get their policy drafted and passed. In that time, they created local news opportunities, collected stories from community members, conducted street audits, had renderings done to illustrate the concepts, held community engagement activities, and met one-on-one with city leaders to get their message out. These efforts were critical in gaining the support needed to get their policy passed.

Changing attitudes bring new opportunities. The City of El Paso set a goal in 2012 to make their community a safer, healthier place to travel, but it would take nearly a decade for a coalition of advocates to start up the call for Complete Streets. The important role Complete Streets could play in allowing the city to reach their broader goals wasn’t immediately clear to the community and city leadership, but once those connections were communicated, the policy was much easier to pass.

Thank you to Joaquin Rodriguez and Kyle Ibarra at the City of El Paso, Texas, as well as Louie Salazar, Lindsay Hovind, and Jerry Saavedra at the American Heart Association for their time and expertise in producing this case study.

Complete Streets Transportation