Howard County, Maryland carved out an identity of its own as it developed from a once largely rural county to a locus of suburban and urban growth between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD. A groundswell of local advocacy for safer streets, paired with philanthropic support and county leadership, resulted in perhaps the strongest Complete Streets policy the Coalition has seen.
Howard County residents biking on a tree-lined trail in Columbia, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Howard County.
Read the full report and other case studies at smartgrowthamerica.org/best-complete-streets
Part I: Background
Howard County, located in between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD, is one of the wealthiest communities in the country, with a median income of about $130,000 and more than half of residents holding at least a bachelor’s degree. It is also a racially diverse place—as of 2021, 20 percent of its residents are African American, 20 percent Asian, and 8 percent Hispanic. In the last few decades it has evolved from a largely rural county to a locus of suburban and urban growth.
Safety is a major concern in Howard County—underfunded bike routes, incomplete bus stops, unsafe intersections, and nonexistent sidewalks meant that mobility in Howard County primarily served motor vehicles. The network that did exist for bicyclists and pedestrians had critical gaps, especially when it came to accessing essential destinations like schools and transit stations. As a result, very few people were choosing to take transit, walk, or roll to get where they needed to go.
When asked about Howard County’s transportation options, Larry Schoer, advocate and chair of the County’s Multimodal Transportation Board, reflected that people living in the county often don’t realize that their “choice” to travel by car is actually compelled by the lack of better multimodal facilities. Making a safe, accessible, multi-modal system a reality in Howard County was a driving force for advocates, county staff, and elected officials alike who worked in partnership to develop the Complete Streets policy.
Part II: Road to adoption
“The continuous, connected network of Complete Streets that will result from this policy will have significant benefits for the residents of Howard County, including improved safety, more travel options, reduced transportation costs, improved access to goods and services, enhanced equity, and even better health.” – Howard County, MD Resolution 120-2019
The Howard County Council unanimously adopted its Complete Streets policy in 2019. To get there, the County took a slow and thoughtful approach to the development of the policy because they wanted it to be transformative and reflect the needs of the community. Meeting these requirements takes time, and in the end, it would take approximately three years to pass the policy, and an additional three to update their design manual.
For Howard County, the process started in earnest in 2016, the same year it adopted its Bike Master Plan, and consisted of organizing and promoting a lot of community events and meetings, and providing opportunities for feedback.
“I think a lot of people become skeptical when the public sector says it’s going to take a year and a half to two years to enact real policy change. I get that and know it is frustrating to everyone because they want to see change immediately, but a deliberative process really is necessary to do something meaningful.”
— Bruce Gartner, Office of Transportation Administer for Howard County
Bringing a policy to life requires both real lived experience and technical expertise. There were a number of key players that were crucial to the development of the Complete Streets policy including Streets for All, a coalition led by Horizon Foundation, AARP Maryland, and the American Heart Association that all organized around the goal of making mobility safe, easy and comfortable in Howard County.
This coalition also included a diverse range of voices, like the local realtor’s association, an elementary school PTA, an autism association, and bicycle shop. Together this group provided invaluable input to the policy creation process. Coalition members like the Horizon Foundation also organized pop-up events where they temporarily closed off streets to cars to reimagine those spaces, as well as walk audits to evaluate safety and accessibility.
Dr. Calvin Ball, current County Executive and a councilmember during the period of the policy’s development, notes the depth of expertise that went into drafting the actual policy language. “The Complete Streets Implementation Team possessed both a strong technical expertise and community knowledge, and were charged with drafting a stellar policy and an excellent Design Manual that relies on best practices from around the country,” said Dr. Ball.
“Having community members stand alongside elected officials and people running for office, saying ‘This is really important to us,’ was really important for the Complete Streets movement in Howard County.”
— Nikki Highsmith Vernick, President & CEO | The Horizon Foundation
“Some of the most defining elements of the plan, such as how modal priorities are identified for a given project, were suggested by community members and refined by staff,” said Senior Principal Engineer Jeffrey R. Riegner, a consultant who helped Howard County staff develop the policy, and is also the current chair of the National Complete Streets Coalition.
The policy’s adoption would not have been possible without elected officials invested in its success; critical champions included Dr. Ball on the county council as well as then- County Executive and current Councilmember Christina Mercer Rigby.
Watch this excellent video from the Horizon Foundation about their Complete Streets Journey, which is also available in a more detailed nine-minute version here.
Part III: What makes Howard County’s policy great
It wasn’t a coincidence that Howard County earned a perfect score on our Complete Streets Policy Framework: “We used guidance from the National Complete Streets Coalition to ensure that Howard County had a best-in-nation policy,” said Vernick with The Horizon Foundation.
The policy does a particularly good job when it comes to prioritizing equity because it is embedded—with binding language—throughout the policy. For example, the policy clearly states that safety for “vulnerable street users,” (defined in the policy as pedestrians, bicyclists, children, seniors, and people with accessibility needs) is the highest priority during project selection, implementation, and evaluation.
The policy also clearly defines which communities are underserved and commits to prioritizing them in their project selection process.
To do this, they used methodology developed by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which pinpoints areas that face more barriers to transportation access based on income, race, disabilities, and other factors. This framework ensures that Howard County will prioritize historically disinvested communities, particularly communities of color, for biking and walking infrastructure. It also ensures the county will use this framework in the development of performance measures to track implementation progress.
Lastly, the policy does a great job of defining exceptions, where many otherwise strong policies fall short. If there are too many exceptions allowed or the policy’s language on exceptions is vague, it is often easy to move away from the other values established within the policy like equity and accessibility. Not only does Howard County’s Complete Streets policy demonstrate best practices by only including a specific and limited list of exceptions; it also outlines the approval process, requiring exceptions be shared publicly prior to review, and designating who is responsible for reviewing and approving proposed exceptions.
Part IV: Putting the policy into practice
One of many successful aspects of the policy is that it required an update to the community’s Design Manual, a technical document that guides the design of Howard County streets so that it centered the goal of safer, more complete streets.
The policy also required that the process for updating the Design Manual include community input, effectively ensuring it reflects community priorities. So from 2019 to 2022, Howard County held 37 virtual meetings and received over 900 comments that shaped the final version of their Design Manual which was finalized in 2022. Experts from the engineering firm Whitman, Requardt & Associates also played a significant role in the development of the manual by managing meetings and methodically evaluating and considering input, while maintaining engineering and design best practices.
Having a good manual in place is key for everyone to be on the same page, according to Abdul Akbari, Chief of Bureau of Engineering, Transportation and Special Projects Division at the Department of Public Works. “It’s great that we have Complete Streets integrated in our Design Manuals, so it’s clear for all our designers, engineers, project managers, and everyone to know exactly what’s needed and that we need to provide and accommodate all modes, bikes, pedestrians, and vehicles,” noted Akbari.
Additionally, the Howard County Complete Streets policy mandates training opportunities for planning and design professionals, county staff, and community members to ensure a collective understanding of the changes to the Design Manual.
“When this Design Manual was adopted, there were training sessions to ensure everybody was aware of the revisions. This helped our project managers, consultants, and engineers implement the changes into their projects since they were knowledgeable on the content of the Design Manual.”
—Abdul Akbari, Chief of Bureau of Engineering, Transportation and Special Projects Division at the Department of Public Works | Howard County
The updated Design Manual has helped engineers and other professionals implement projects with a Complete Streets approach. Some design elements that have already been included within projects include green bike lane markings, bike boxes, and sidewalk retrofitting.
Left, a bicyclist on the Oakland Mill Road cyclist track in Fall 2022. Right, sidewalk construction on Doncaster Drive in Ellicott City, MD in 2019. Photos courtesy of Howard County.
The update to the Design Manual also included the development of a robust community engagement plan. Now located within the Manual itself, the plan details how engineers and design professionals using the manual will work with community members to make sure future projects reflect community needs. Specific goals laid out in the plan include building stronger relationships with a range of community stakeholders and county entities, increasing awareness about Complete Streets, creating more equitable access to engagement opportunities, and formalizing feedback processes. Additionally, the community engagement plan calls for specific performance measures to evaluate whether or not these goals are being adequately implemented, adding a critical layer of accountability.
Part V: Lessons learned
A crowd of community members, county staff, state transportation staff, Columbia Association staff, and policy consultants gathered around picnic tables, trees, and display boards at a 2019 community input meeting for the Complete Streets policy at Wilde Lake High School, Columbia, MD. Photo courtesy of Howard County.
Howard County’s policy was built on a strong foundation of collaboration, which required both time and extensive community engagement.
Take your time—great policies are not created overnight. They require significant time and energy from a diverse group of stakeholders to ensure the policy reflects community needs. It took Howard County six years to develop and adopt this policy and the corresponding Design Manual. Although it may create a longer process, it’s critical to take the time to get all the details right and build policies that benefit as many community members as possible.
Bring together people with a wide range of lived experience and expertise to inform your policy. In order to create a transformational policy and design manual that reflects community needs, Howard County brought together people with a diverse range of personal and professional backgrounds.
Activate your community. A huge component of Howard County’s success was that they kept the community informed and actively involved throughout the process. Holding walk audits, open streets events, and other gatherings focused on the County’s Complete Streets work helped people connect on shared goals and create a collaborative vision for what they wanted their community to be.
“In Howard County, we prioritize the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Complete Streets is at the forefront of our work to build a safer, more sustainable, and more equitable transportation system.”
— Calvin Ball, Howard County Executive
Two dozen or so Howard County residents use a crosswalk at Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. Photo courtesy of Howard County.
Thank you to Howard County staff Bruce Gartner, Administrator at the Office of Transportation, Chris Eatough, Bike & Pedestrian Coordinator at the Office of Transportation, Abdul Akbari, Chief at the Department of Public Works Bureau of Engineering, Transportation and Special Projects Division, Nikki Highsmith Vernick, President & CEO of the Horizon Foundation, and Larry Schoen, Chairman of the Multimodal Transportation Board for the Office of Transportation for their time and expertise in producing this case study.