The state of Complete Streets policies, and the need for more progress

Adopting a Complete Streets policy is a crucial first step to reducing traffic violence, improving health equity, responding to the climate crisis, and rectifying a long history of inequitable transportation practices. The new Best Complete Streets Policies report spotlights the communities that have taken that first step and outlines how they made it happen.

In the four years since the last edition of the Best Complete Streets Policies report, an additional 157 places—from towns and villages to metropolitan planning organizations and state departments of transportation—have passed new Complete Streets policies. This means that in the last couple decades, 1,740 Complete Streets policies have been adopted in the United States through 2022.

In the same four years, the National Complete Streets Coalition equipped communities to make Complete Streets a reality. The Coalition:

Notable trends within this four-year batch of policies

In 2018, the Coalition completely overhauled our framework and raised the bar on what makes a strong Complete Streets policy—requiring more binding language, accountability, and focus on prioritizing underinvested and underserved communities.

Stylized graphic showing illustrated people on a lovely complete street in a random community
Click the image or here to read about why the framework changed in 2018

As expected, in 2019, scores went down when policies were evaluated against the more stringent framework reflecting these higher standards. The good news is that after five years with the new policy scoring framework in place, communities are rising to the challenge: the average score for policies included in this report was 45 out of 100, up five points from the average score of those included in the last report.

The Coalition is encouraged to see this overall response but also realizes that the average score is still not high enough to have a significant impact on how a community plans, designs, and builds its streets.

While there is room for improvement in many of the policies, the strongest scoring policies made notable gains. The average score for the top 11 Complete Streets policies featured in this report is 89.2, compared to 71.5 for the top 10 featured in our 2018 report. The Coalition attributes this jump to the hard work of advocates, policymakers, and practitioners pushing for change and leaning on resources like our Complete Streets Policy Framework and Best Complete Streets Policies reports to develop policies with strong implementable and equitable language.

Why we need stronger policies

Our streets and roads continue to grow historically dangerous. According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2021 was the deadliest year on American roadways since 2005, with just under 43,000 deaths.

Dangerous by Design 2022 found that this situation is especially dire for those outside of vehicles, as drivers struck and killed over 26,000 people— disproportionately people of color and people in low-income communities—walking between 2018 and 2021. This trend was exacerbated by the pandemic, when emptier roads emboldened more drivers to drive at higher speeds. But even more worryingly, as travel volumes returned to pre-pandemic levels, fatalities on our roadways have continued to increase.

Graphic showing year by year totals of pedestrian deaths from 2011 to 2021

As noted in the graphic above, 7,341 people were struck and killed while walking in 2021, a 12.4 percent increase over 2020, one of the biggest one-time jumps in recent history and the highest overall level in more than three decades.

Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tried to claim an illusory victory that traffic deaths overall have merely “leveled off” at these historic heights, it admits this narrative rings hollow for those outside of cars: cyclist and pedestrian deaths increased by 8 and 2 percent, respectively, in the first nine months of 2022 compared to 2021.

The cost of doing nothing to address this epidemic of pedestrian fatalities is exorbitant. These numbers represent real people—each one is someone’s loved one. Each one is a community member. Each crash is a traumatic event for its community. Every day that passes without action is unacceptable.

Strong local policies can’t touch the most dangerous streets

Local jurisdictions need their states and Congress to partner with them to change this situation. Even the strongest local Complete Streets policies will have little impact on the state-owned or controlled roads that are still designed for speed over safety.

Graphic showing that non-interstate arterials make up 13 percent of US road network, but have 59% of all pedestrian deaths
Graphic from a VOX video

Nearly two-thirds of all traffic fatalities in urban areas occur on state-owned arterial roads. States control these roads, which also receive the lion’s share of non-interstate federal transportation money. In addition, federal design standards (which set a baseline for state-level standards) continue to prioritize vehicle throughput and speed above safety of other modes, leading to fruitless, expensive attempts to “eliminate congestion” by making roads ever wider, straighter, and faster—and more deadly.

The Complete Streets movement has successfully moved the needle at the federal level in the last few years, winning several notable new programs and provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), including the $1 billion per year Safe Streets and Roads for All Program. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) also issued a report to Congress outlining the agency’s commitment to using Complete Streets as its default approach to funding and designing roadways; following up on the report with new guidance, technical assistance, and research funding

Despite these efforts, the fundamental issues remain: USDOT’s control over federal spending is limited and Congress has maintained the approach of providing enormous flexible block grants to states with almost no requirements to prioritize safe travel for everyone. Put another way, even with a lot of progress at the federal level, $1 billion a year for Safe Streets for All will continue to be dwarfed by the $50 billion-plus that transportation agencies have at their disposal for the status quo.

USDOT’s suite of plans, guidance, and suggested actions are indeed encouraging. But just as the Coalition took a hard look five years ago at local and state Complete Streets policies that were failing to move the needle because they were never put into practice, we will evaluate USDOT in a similar fashion: Do these ambitious plans get turned into concrete actions?

We urgently need a paradigm shift in transportation funding, planning, and design—of which a strong Complete Streets policy can be a catalyst.

With federal policy largely set for another 3-4 years, local and regional efforts need to be met with leadership from their state departments of transportation. Some states are taking this role seriously. For example, Massachusetts, through its Complete Streets Funding program, incentivizes jurisdictions to adopt and implement Complete Streets policies—one reason why more than 60 of the 157 scored policies this year came from that state. Washington, through legislation passed in 2022, requires Complete Streets consideration for all projects over $500,000 within urbanized areas, altering fundamental DOT practices.

Unfortunately, these states are the exceptions to the rule, and while their accomplishments are significant, they have decades of transportation decision-making to dig themselves out of. They only stand out due to the deadly deficiencies of their counterparts. Other states urgently need to follow their lead. Every single one of the most deadly 20 states in the country grew more deadly when comparing the five-year periods of 2011-15 to 2016-20. None got safer.

Whether their states are moving the ball forward or not, communities urgently need to pass their own Complete Streets policies or strengthen outdated or weak ones. These policies are not just documents. They represent the effort of advocates, the engagement of community members, and the investments of public officials and public sector staff. They also represent a set of processes and a commitment of resources to execute those processes so that words don’t languish on the page, but instead save people’s lives.

Every day without an effective Complete Streets policy is a missed chance to set the groundwork necessary to quickly and efficiently utilize funding when it becomes available. Every day without a Complete Streets policy is a signal to other local leaders, to state transportation officials, and to members of Congress that they don’t need to do their part. Every day without a quality, equitable, implementable Complete Streets policy is an admission that the deadly status quo is acceptable.

Read the full Best Complete Streets Policies 2023 report here >>

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