Why Complete Streets Succeeds

When we started the Complete Streets movement, we didn’t look at where we would like every community to arrive. We looked at where communities are now.

No sidewalks or crosswalks are available on this stretch of road Atlantic City, NJ -- despite a sign warning motorists to expect school children

We devised what turned out to be a highly successful path to change, and now want to reiterate our change model in light of the recent New York City-based Project for Public Spaces musing on whether Complete Streets are ‘incomplete’ and other questions we get about whether Complete Streets goes far enough.

For most of the United States, the starting point is a pretty grim place. Simply put, there aren’t many sidewalks out there — and a lot of older adults, children, and low-income people are using ‘goat paths’ as the cars whiz by.

Teenagers run to cross a wide road without crosswalks in Austin, TX

A fundamental shift is needed in what transportation agencies see as their job. It isn’t to move cars; it is to safely move people. But since auto-mobility has been the dominant transportation paradigm for more than a half-century, that change is not an easy task. It requires strong leadership – and political and community support.

That’s what Complete Streets policies do. A Complete Streets policy simply makes clear to a transportation agency that its job is to provide for the safe travel of all users of the transportation system. From that commitment, a whole cascade of changes can begin to take place.

In many communities that cascade will grow to include place-making, smart growth strategies, and streets that are built and managed sustainably. We applaud and support this progression.

But look again at the pictures on this page. Check out this new map of road fatalities. In much of the United States, it is a huge victory to simply stop the bleeding by ending the belief that a transportation agency can conduct its business as if people don’t walk, ride buses or bikes, or have disabilities.

An adult and child walk in the roadway because no sidewalks were built when this road was constructed in Charlotte, NC

When creating a change this fundamental, it is important to keep in mind who has decision making power. Most transportation agencies don’t have any control of — or often even any input on — land use. They have no responsibility for water quality, economic growth, or quality of life. Yes, they should. But demanding that agencies take on all of this at once is unrealistic — and most will resist or give up.

In many communities, the cutting edge simply won’t cut it. They may not be ready for cycle tracks, bus rapid transit, or other transportation innovations. But they can quite readily recognize that it is their responsibility to create a safe travel environment for all travelers.

And once they understand that this can be done gradually, with simple measures — that a huge grant isn’t needed to transform every road into a gorgeous multi-modal boulevard — they embrace Complete Streets and begin making change right away, using their current funds.

Students walk the line in Upper Providence Township PA -- without a shoulder or sidewalk, they must hope that car drivers proceed with care.

We see it happening across the country: Baldwin Park, CA to Billings, MT to Birmingham, AL; Salamanca, NY to Salt Lake City, UT to San Antonio, TX. All of these communities are starting their transformation by adopting a Complete Streets policy. And, in many, a policy has become an essential component of bigger changes by clearly defining the role of transportation departments in building more livable communities.

Our success stems from our focus on simple, accessible, society-wide change. We’ve set a clear standard for policy language, and adopting a policy does not depend on hiring an outside help — although we’re happy to come in to conduct a workshop, and our Partner firms can help with implementation! Of the 314 communities, counties, regions, and states that have now adopted Complete Streets policy, most have done so simply using our web-based guidance on writing policies.

(The only shortcoming of this approach is that we don’t charge for it — so please consider joining the Coalition.)

A teenager avoids puddles in while walking in a gravel path along this Portland, OR street.

I’ve been working in transportation reform and smart growth since the early 1990s, when I cut my teeth on these issues in the Atlanta area — hardly fertile ground. But I keep Georgia on my mind when I hear the tendency toward all-encompassing, precise, even perfect end points. I’ve seen them fall flat because they don’t provide a clear path from ‘now’ to an imagined, idyllic future.

Complete Streets creates such a path.

Complete Streets