Safe streets are global—and it’s time for the U.S. to catch up

Whether they’re considered Complete Streets or silver zones, other parts of the world are reimagining how streets function and are designed. The U.S. is falling behind, so in order to spur hope and inspiration of what the future of mobility can look like across the nation, we look to what is being made possible in other regions across the globe. Travel with us to countries in Asia and South America, where we examine achievements in innovative street design. 

Bikers participate in an open streets event in Mexico City
Photo courtesy of the Government of Mexico City

As our name suggests, Smart Growth America mostly focuses on rethinking transportation and land use strategies in the United States. But the issues we work on, like climate change, equity, and public health, are major concerns across the world—and we can stand to learn from places that are making strides. This blog will focus on Complete Streets. 

You might think this is going to be another blog about mobility success in Europe (yeah, we know Helsinki and Oslo are awesome). While there are some exciting things happening on the other side of the North Atlantic, those laudable stories are well-documented, and focusing too much on Europe can lead people to believe, wrongly, that these sorts of innovations are only possible in some places, not everywhere. For too long, the U.S. has lagged behind other countries around the world in public health and traffic safetyand U.S. pedestrian deaths continue to climb. In an effort to inspire local communities to rethink what’s possible, we’ll be spotlighting Complete Streets achievements in a variety of settings.

First a brief word about words. Here at SGA we use the term “Complete Streets” as our paradigm for the way streets should be designed and operated. Some other places around the world have adopted this terminology, but there is great diversity. For this blog, we looked at policies that have the same goals and outcomes as Complete Streets—namely giving people the freedom to drive less, improving safety for all road users, and enhancing transportation options. A Complete Street by any other name is just as safe, healthy, and joyful.


Japan’s parking paradigm 
A Japanese street with a pink sky in the background showing one car lane, a bike lane, and sidewalk.
Photo courtesy of Taras Grescoe
A Japanese street with a yellow sky in the background showing one car lane and a neighboring sidewalk.
Photo courtesy of Taras Grescoe

Despite being one of the world’s top car manufacturers, Japan has managed to avoid the overwhelming car-centered development we have here in the States. An important part of this is its impressive parking reforms and parking-less streets. Anyone who wants to register a car in Japan today must prove that they have a private place to park it. This shifts the economic burden of providing parking from the public to drivers, and also ensures that supply of parking will not grossly outpace demand (as is often the case in American cities).

Japanese cities generally just don’t build much on-street parking. This can be due to local policies, spatial constraints, or both. Whatever the cause, the result is that public parking is considered a privilege to enjoy, not a right. By prioritizing other uses for limited curbspace, they make cities that are safer, healthier, and more pleasant for everyone (including toddlers).

Singapore’s Silver Zones 

Singapore has been building “Silver Zones” to improve pedestrian safety in areas with higher proportions of older adults. Beyond simply putting up a few signs and expecting people to change their behavior, these zones feature lowered speed limits (approximately 20 mph), longer intersection crossing lights for pedestrians, and traffic calming designs (such as chicanes, widened medians, rumble strips, and more). For a look at some of these features, here’s a playful video. As we frequently point out when advocating for Complete Streets, when we prioritize safety and walkability for vulnerable road users like older adults, everyone wins.


Signs on the road reduce speed limit to indicate a silver zone in Singapore
Photo courtesy of Land Transport Authority
Transit-oriented development in Hong Kong 

Hong Kong has really embraced transit-oriented development (TOD). An integrated transportation network comprises high-capacity railways, trams, buses, ferries, and more, moving approximately 10 million passengers a day. TOD, combined with high private car registration costs, parking restrictions, fuel taxes, and other measures, have led to high rates of sustainable transportation choices, like walking, biking, and using public transit. The largest number of trips are taken by public transit (around 80 percent), while private vehicle trips are only about 10 percent. Private car ownership in Hong Kong is among the lowest in the world, which isn’t surprising when other modes are safe, accessible and convenient. 

A double-decker tram in Hong Kong
Photo courtesy of Tramplus

These Asian policies and street design choices mean that one can live in or visit these places comfortably without a car. They also help make streets in these places safer for everyone, not just pedestrians. Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore have among the lowest mortality by road traffic rates in the world.  

Don’t assume these nice things are an automatic result that come from being a wealthy place with a strong economy, either. The U.S. is by far the world’s biggest and most prosperous economy, yet our transportation system lags behind these examples. 

Latin America

Open streets from Mexico City to Bogotá

Let’s continue on our world tour with what’s happening in Latin American countries around open streets. Bogotá, Colombia often gets credit for pioneering and popularizing this concept thanks to local activists who began organizing open streets events (called ciclovías—Spanish for bikeway) in the 1970s. Each Sunday (and on national holidays), streets across Bogotá, including some of the most prominent corridors and thoroughfares, are closed to cars from 7am to 2pm. Around 1.5 million Bogotanos partake in ciclovías. After decades of successful implementation, the ciclovías don’t even seem like an event in many parts of the city—it’s just what happens on a Sunday. 

Other Latin American cities such as Quito, São Paulo, and Mexico City have launched their own open streets events that regularly draw tens of thousands of participants and open dozens of miles of streets to uses other than moving cars. Open streets bring numerous benefits including increased physical activity, economic development, and an improved sense of place and community. 

The success and popularity of open streets has grown in recent years and they have been replicated in hundreds of cities across North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

A man, woman and child use a crosswalk in Salvador de Bahía.
Photo courtesy of Pan American Health Organization
Safe street design in Salvador de Bahía Brazil

On the other hand, Salvador, Brazil has taken it to the streets with impressive traffic safety interventions over the past decade. Beginning in 2011, the city ramped up efforts to identify the factors and problematic areas of the city responsible for traffic fatalities. Targeted interventions included improving dangerous intersections, reducing speed limits, increasing education, and cracking down on drunk driving. The city also built out its bike path network from about 30 miles to 200 in just a decade. The results have been impressive. According to government statistics, traffic fatalities reduced steadily across all categories of road users. 

More is possible

Does this brief global glance prove that other places have figured everything out and have solved safe and healthy transportation and urban development? Certainly not. The examples mentioned here are exemplary cases, but demonstrate that the future of mobility need not follow the same dangerous status quo. They prove that with a combination of public and political will to the commitment of the prioritization of people over cars, we can produce the results we care all about.

Complete Streets