Takeaways from the Best Complete Streets Policies 2023 Webinar

Last month, Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition hosted the Best Complete Streets Policies 2023 Webinar. We heard directly from four advocates and practitioners who helped pass some of the strongest Complete Streets policies of the past four years in communities across the country. Read on for the final takeaways from our panelists, as well as their answers to some of the questions we weren’t able to address during the webinar.

During our Best Complete Streets Policies 2023 Webinar, we spoke with Michael Kelley, Jeff Riegner, Jerry Saavedra, and Evren Sönmez about their work to pass Complete Streets policies in Tucson, AZ; Joplin, MO; El Paso, TX; and Howard County, MD. These were among the top-rated policies in our Best Complete Streets Policies 2023 Report.  Michael, Jeff, Jerry, and Evren discussed the resources they took advantage of in formulating their policy (such as our Complete Streets Policy Framework), how to build a coalition to pass that policy, and how they will each implement their policies once they pass. Below you can find the major takeaways they had for those listening and their answers to audience questions.

Read the Best Complete Streets Policies 2023 Report


Advice from our panelists

Michael Kelley: “My one piece of advice with a policy is to opt for an ordinance instead of a resolution at the local level. I’ve worked with several communities which had to update their Complete Streets resolution to an ordinance because the resolution wasn’t strong enough.”

Jeff Riegner: “Create a diverse coalition. Government agencies are the most common developers and implementers of a Complete Streets policy, but they need the support of other interested parties to affect change.

“And, be patient, but persistent. Governments take a long time to get things done. In large part that’s because they’re accountable to the people, so there are a lot of checks and balances in policy development and in planning and design processes. That’s appropriate. But it’s essential for everyone to understand the importance of making change as quickly as those processes will accommodate. Simple tools like accountability (through a coalition as mentioned before), regular check-ins, and public deadlines help everyone move forward together.”

Jerry Saavedra: “Always stay focused on the end game: adopting a formal Complete Streets policy that meets national standards. A Complete Streets policy has so many diverse stakeholders that can be an asset for your effort but at the same time may bring competing agendas or distractions with related efforts. Keep your coalition focused on only those activities that at the end of the day help generate support and make the case for city leaders to adopt a formal Complete Streets policy.

“In that work, define Complete Streets policy early and often. The webinar did a great job demonstrating how to properly level-set the conversation about Complete Streets as a policy focused on the process and not on individual projects.  Complete Streets often means different things to different people.  It is important to get in front of the misunderstanding that frequently comes up in this work that Complete Streets efforts are just about putting bike lanes everywhere and adding cost to street projects.  Explaining how a Complete Streets policy is simply about putting in place a process by which city leaders and staff, along with community input on the front end, consider the needs of all users and whether various elements to improve street safety and health make sense or not, helps to create a more productive conversation.  If it doesn’t make sense to put in a bike lane, don’t put in a bike lane, but at least consider the question and provide an opportunity for the community to weigh in.

“Finally, advocating for the adoption of strong Complete Streets policies across the country is a priority for the American Heart Association (AHA). If an AHA staff member is not already involved in your Complete Streets effort feel free to reach out to me and I will connect you with the appropriate staff member for your area.”

Evren Sönmez: “In developing a Complete Streets policy, the process is just as— if not more—important than the outcomes. Designing a process that invites people in, connects different perspectives, fosters collaboration, and elevates shared decision-making has tremendous value in and of itself and will also enrich and strengthen the policy that will come out of it.

“Crafting a policy that provides clear and strong language is important because it serves as a “roadmap” and a point of reference for agency staff, members of the oversight body, and other parties involved in implementation as they begin to translate the policy into implementation steps like project prioritization, design guidelines, etc.”

Answers to outstanding questions from the webinar

Q: Can you talk about how important it is to have city staff that has passion and experience in the bike/ped/Complete Streets area? And if there aren’t any, what are best practices for bringing that experience to them (consultants, community bike/walk groups, etc.)? Our Public Works Dept. has no clue about the principles and process of Complete Streets. 

A: “It is incredibly important and helpful to have a city staff person or an elected who understands and supports Complete Streets in your community. If there isn’t one, a way you can help to build awareness is through on-the-ground activities such as a traffic calming demonstration or a walk audit. Inviting them and members of the community to participate brings those decision-makers face-to-face with the shortcomings of the built environment that they can’t fully appreciate by reading statistics or looking at a map. BikeWalkKC conducted a walk audit like this last year with various crossings along a portion of I-70 in KCMO.” – Michael Kelley

Q: I would like to know how the jurisdictions with best policies dealt with budgetary implications that most of the time can act as a constraint.

A: “Financial implications are a common concern. Complete Streets isn’t about spending more money, it’s about spending the money a jurisdiction currently has available in a way that benefits everyone on the street. Each time an agency advances a transportation project, it should use the available funds to create the best possible facilities for all users, especially those who are most vulnerable. One good resource for dealing with constraints, whether they’re physical or financial, is section 1.3.E of the Howard County Design Manual Volume III, Complete Streets and Bridges. This section provides guidance for negotiating trade-offs in difficult street design situations. Another tool for doing more with less is National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) Report 1036, Roadway Cross-Section Reallocation: A Guide.” – Jeff Riegner

Q: Were any groups or individuals provided compensation for participating in any of your coalitions?

A: “We were able to provide stipends/honorariums to our youth partners who led pop-up engagement events and people who participated in the digital storytelling training we hosted. There were stipends available to the Complete Streets Task Force members, but those individuals, for the most part, got involved in representing their organization or professional field, so very few people ended up accepting them. We weren’t able to include stipends in our budget for people who participated in community dialogues. We had food, transit passes, and activities for children available at those events. I think compensation is important to honor people’s participation and we have since gotten better at it reflecting on lessons learned during our Complete Streets campaign. For example, we now include an explicit line item in our budgets for gift cards we offer to people who participate in community engagement events.” – Evren Sönmez

Q: Do Complete Streets policies include vision zero initiatives?

A: “The safety, comfort, and convenience of all street users is at the center of the Complete Streets approach. So while Vision Zero may or may not be used by name, its basic tenets must form part of a successful Complete Streets policy.” – Jeff Riegner

A: “In El Paso, the city was also working on Vision Zero efforts.  They saw the Complete Streets policy as one of the strategies for achieving Vision Zero but we worked to ensure the Complete Streets policy did not get confused or conflated with Vision Zero but instead as going hand in hand.” – Jerry Saavedra:


Thank you to Evren, Michael, Jerry, and Jeff for taking time out of their busy schedules to prepare for and participate in this webinar with us. You can contact them at [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected] if you have any specific follow-up questions for them individually.


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