Three years of Champions: How the Complete Streets Champions Institute has made a difference

As the third cohort of Smart Growth America’s Champions Institute recently wrapped up, we wanted to take a moment to look back. What have Champions gained from the past three years, and what progress is yet to come? We touched base with past Champions to find out.


In partnership with the CDC’s Active People Healthy NationSM initiative, Smart Growth America launched the first Champions Institute in 2020. Since then, the program has supported three cohorts and 48 Champions in total—consisting of mayors, city councilmembers, commissioners, and other local elected officials from 24 different states—helping them advance their efforts to promote activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations. 

We’ve heard great stories from our champions who’ve experienced a range of accomplishments since their participation in the Institute. Their efforts have not only moved their own initiatives forward but also advanced the broader movement of Complete Streets. Below are ongoing efforts by some of our champions as they work to create active, healthy, and vibrant communities:

Savannah, Georgia

Councilmember Palumbo describes the Champions Institute as an incredibly impactful experience. Since his participation in the 2020-21 Institute, the City of Savannah, Georgia developed their Vision Zero Action Plan and secured funding to hire a Vision Zero engineer to implement their goals in 2022. In 2023, they funded their comprehensive trail network with $10 million in funds raised through Hotel/Motel taxes. The efforts initiated during the program helped Councilmember Nick Palumbo address what he cites as “two of the biggest barriers to Complete Streets progress in Savannah, Georgia—outdated practices and funding.”

“The Champions Institute stands as one of the most impactful and informative experiences since I have been an elected official. I know that this course and experience helped me unlock many of the issues my community was facing and helped me understand why they were happening and what I could do to solve them. I have no doubt it provided myself and my community the know-how to set their City on a healthier, more productive trajectory that will benefit Savannahians for generations.” Councilmember Nick Palumbo | Savannah, GA

Athens, Georgia

When she participated in the 2020-2021 Champions Institute, Councilmember Carol Myers’ goal was to create a Complete Streets policy. She achieved her goal in 2022, when Athens officially passed their policy, ranked #15 in Smart Growth America’s 2023 Best Complete Streets policies report. This policy is a great accomplishment for Athens that can serve as a stepping stone in Councilmember Myers’ efforts to make Athens a safe and thriving community.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however. As the political landscape in Athens has shifted with more conservative elected officials taking office, some are calling bike infrastructure a misuse of funds, making it more difficult to realize some Complete Streets goals. However, Councilmember Myers remains committed to the work and pulls from her time at the Champions Institute to continue to push for safer streets.

“The Champions Institute gave me the opportunity to connect with other community leaders across the country trying to make their streets safer and more usable and comfortable for all types of users.” Councilmember Carol Myers | Athens, GA

Pacific Grove, California

Councilmember Chaps Poduri of Pacific Grove, California had multiple goals going into the 2021-2022 Champions Institute. The first goal was to improve the design of a five-way intersection on a state-owned road to create safer crossing for pedestrians, most of whom are students trying to reach nearby schools. Since then, they’ve secured $5 million in funding from their regional transportation agency and are in the initial planning stages for the project. Second, Councilmember Poduri sought to create processes that prioritized Complete Streets in their city council. They’re now in the process of hiring a consultant for a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which will include Complete Streets—indicating growing support for Complete Streets implementation. 

While reflecting on the experience, Councilmember Poduri emphasized the critical role that participating in the Champions Institute has played in Pacific Grove’s implementation of Complete Streets.

“For someone like me who had to look up multi-modal in the dictionary at the start of the program, this endeavor has been truly helpful in more ways than one. […] I learn more every day and I am glad that I have resources from CDC and SGA to get a true perspective of how we can work together to drive positive change within our communities.” Councilmember Chaps Poduri | Pacific Grove, CA

Phoenix, Arizona

While participating in the 2021-22 Champions Institute, Councilmember Yassamin Ansari of Phoenix, Arizona focused on engaging a broad coalition of community members, private and non-profit stakeholders, and city leaders to gather input, identify priorities, and fast-track solutions to transform Phoenix into a walkable and sustainable city. 

Since then, they commissioned a study on their yellow traffic signal timings which found that longer yellow lights led to a 60 percent reduction in red-light runners at three busy intersections. As a result, now they are working to implement longer yellow light signals at their deadliest intersections. Additionally, Phoenix has invested in safer crosswalks and protected bike lanes and secured federal funding for a much-needed pedestrian bridge. They are also testing two scramble crosswalks near the busy Arizona State University downtown campus. All of these efforts are progress towards a safer, more accessible Phoenix.

“Participating in the Smart Growth America Champions’ Institute has given our office the tools and resources to build smarter, safer streets.” Councilmember Yassamin Ansari | Phoenix, AZ

Political differences, antiquated policies, and funding shortfalls create barriers when public officials work to implement Complete Streets. However, our Champions showed that with collaboration, creativity, and commitment, meaningful transformations are possible. The accomplishments of the Champions Institute participants are proof that when we think differently about how we build our communities and prioritize people, we can create places where everyone can thrive.

Complete Streets