Understanding the FHWA’s recent Complete Streets report and its role in transforming roadway safety and design

Image from San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) recently issued a report to Congress outlining the agency’s commitment to using Complete Streets as its default approach to funding and designing roadways, as well as the agency’s ongoing challenges and opportunities in advancing safety and reducing traffic injuries and fatalities. This is an important step forward, especially when combined with a newly established Complete Streets hub and additional roadway design guidance.

The need to improve road safety for all users is critical as roadway fatality rates continue to rise, increasing dramatically in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite fewer miles driven.  While FHWA’s report lays out a clear path forward for reducing these avoidable deaths on our roads, the willingness of FHWA, and state and local agencies to make the kind of major changes spelled out in the report will determine if that happens, or not.

The report to Congress highlights FHWA’s recent work supporting state, local, and tribal governments in their efforts to prioritize street safety and accessibility in their communities. It also describes the agency’s renewed focus on safety, as outlined in USDOT’s new comprehensive roadway safety strategy, which established the FHWA Complete Streets Initiative. 

To build a strong Complete Streets network it is critical to ensure that streets are accessible and designed to serve and protect the most vulnerable users. Stephanie Pollack, the Deputy Federal Highway Administrator emphasizes this need and FHWA’s role in “providing an equitable and safe transportation network for travelers of all ages and abilities, including vulnerable road users and those from underserved communities that have faced historic disinvestment.”

But significant changes are needed to make that possible, and it won’t be easy. The report also spells out some of these challenges associated with implementing a Complete Streets approach, highlighting five overarching opportunity areas that will help the agency address safety challenges holistically, such as improving data collection and analysis, supporting rigorous safety assessments in all projects, and accelerating the adoption of standards and guidance that promote safety and accessibility for all users.

Along with the report, FHWA established a new Complete Streets hub. This tool provides transportation agencies with educational resources and guidance in the planning, development, and operation of a safe and equitable street network, including specific support on proven safety countermeasures and transforming arterials (more on that in a minute). 

It is incredibly exciting and powerful to see FHWA acknowledge several factors in this report. Specifically, their upfront commitment to safety as a “top priority” is a critical, and long overdue step toward advancing road safety and reducing the number of lives lost on our roads. They also acknowledge the direct tradeoffs and tensions between safety and congestion reduction goals, as well as how their own federal guidance can lead states to prioritize the latter at the expense of safety. 

Moving beyond principles to better practice

While this report can assist agencies in charting an actionable path for preventing the status quo of unnecessary injuries and deaths on our roads, transportation agencies must urgently act to change their practices and prioritize safety. “Every day the status quo approach stands and transportation agencies are allowed to design, build, or maintain their streets only for cars is a day where we allow the historic levels of death on those roadways to continue. This report gives us a path forward—one that needs to be acted on in the immediate future,” said Smart Growth America’s VP of Transportation, Beth Osborne, in our statement on the report

It is critical that the FHWA conveys this message clearly in all interactions with states, local leaders, stakeholders, and the general public, otherwise this message and report may lose their significance.

Given the many tools that are currently available, FHWA’s new resources, and the recent influx of flexible cash from the infrastructure law, states are uniquely positioned to reduce deaths and improve safety—if they choose to prioritize it. FHWA must be clear about this, as well as reminding states that they have significant power (and funding flexibility) to change the nature of their communities’ roads, and must lead the charge toward real change.

This became clear with FHWA’s new guidebook on transforming arterial roadways, which sparked significant discussion about the images chosen to represent complete street transformations and the consistency of their message. Although the report aids perhaps skeptical engineers in taking some simple first steps toward Complete Streets, the scope and extent of the “transformations” leave something to be desired. We will need far more ambitious transformations of the nation’s arterial roads to prioritize safety over speed and vehicle throughput if we are truly going to reduce deaths and injuries on these roads, which are where the bulk of all fatalities occur.

Image featured in the Complete Streets Transformations report

One of the key images chosen to articulate transformation in the report (shown above) is a  good example of a design that often fails in execution because safety and meeting the needs of all users was never the primary consideration. This kind of transformation can add to existing confusion about what Complete Streets are, reinforcing the mistaken idea that it’s just about adding bike lanes and sidewalks to streets that are still designed around a core goal of moving as many cars as fast as possible, instead of a fundamentally different approach to planning, designing, building, operating, and maintaining streets that enable safe access for all people who need to use them, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.

It is critical to recognize the importance of consistency in messaging and imagery if we truly hope to change the narrative and the practices of state and local transportation agencies. This is crucial in supporting states and communities across the country in adopting and implementing a consistent and effective approach that will result in significant improvements in safety on the ground.

For more information on FHWA’s Complete Streets efforts, visit their new website.

Read the full report


Complete Streets Transportation