Complete Streets is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. Complete Streets allow for safe travel by those walking, bicycling, driving automobiles, riding public transportation, or delivering goods.
Benefits of Complete Streets can include improved safety, health, economic, and environmental outcomes. Complete Streets emphasize the importance of safe access for all users, not just automobiles, similar to the concepts of living streets, Woonerf, and home zones.
Since World War II, many communities in the United States have been designed to facilitate easy and fast access to destinations via automobile. In rural and suburban communities, people often rely on the automobile as their sole means of transportation and even in areas with public transportation and safe places to walk and bicycle, in a state of “automobile dependence”—automobiles are the central focus of transportation, infrastructure and land use policies to the extent that other modes of transportation, such as walking, cycling and mass transit, have become impractical.
Oregon enacted the first Complete Streets policy in the United States in 1971, requiring that new or rebuilt roads accommodate bicycles and pedestrians, and required state and local governments to fund pedestrian and bicycle facilities in the public right-of-way. Since then 16 additional state legislatures have adopted Complete Streets laws.
In 2003, Barbara McCann, who would later become the Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, coordinated a search for a replacement for “routine accommodation.” The term "complete streets" was suggested by David Goldberg, the communications director for Smart Growth America, and was adopted by a coalition of advocacy groups to refer both to a comprehensive approach to street design and to the coalition itself.
The National Complete Streets Coalition was founded in 2005 by a coalition of advocacy and trade groups, including AARP, the American Planning Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects. The American Public Transportation Association, Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, the National Association of Realtors, and the Institute of Transportation Engineers are examples of other current Coalition Steering Committee members.
In 2010 the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a policy statement on bicycle and pedestrian accommodation, declaring its support for their inclusion in federal-aid transportation projects and encouraging community organizations, public transportation agencies, and state and local governments to adopt similar policies.
As of early 2013, over 490 jurisdictions in United States have adopted a Complete Streets policy. Twenty-seven states, including the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, have adopted Complete Streets policies. Some of these jurisdictions have passed legislation enacting their policies into law, while others have implemented their policies by executive order or internal policy. Still more jurisdictions have passed non-binding resolutions in support of Complete Streets, or created transportation plans that incorporate Complete Streets principles.
The specific design elements of Complete Streets vary based on context and project goals, but they may include:
- Pedestrian infrastructure such as sidewalks; traditional and raised crosswalks; median crossing islands; Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 compliant facilities including audible cues for people with low vision, pushbuttons reachable by people in wheelchairs, and curb cuts; and sidewalk bulb-outs.
- Traffic calming measures to lower speeds of automobiles and define the edges of automobile travel lanes, including a road diet, center medians, shorter curb corner radii, elimination of free-flow right-turn lanes, angled, face-out parking, street trees, planter strips and ground cover
- Bicycle accommodations, such as protected or dedicated bicycle lanes, neighborhood greenways, wide paved shoulders, and bicycle parking.
- Mass transit accommodations, such as Bus Rapid Transit, bus pullouts, transit signal priority, bus shelters, and dedicated bus lanes.
Such elements have been used successfully in projects across the United States. Orlando, Florida used a road diet to reduce Edgewater Drive from 4 lanes to 3 with bike lanes and streetscape added. The change reduced crashes 35 percent and increased bicycling and walking 23 and 30 percent respectively. The change also helped spur economic development and enhance the neighborhood's sense of place. In Charlotte, North Carolina, a redesign on East Boulevard completed in three phases converted a 4 lanes into 3 lanes and improved left-turn access for vehicles. In New York City, transit improvements through Select Bus Service included off-board fare payment to speed boarding times and dedicated lanes for buses. As a result, bus speeds increased 20 percent and total number of bus riders increased 10 percent. In addition, Fordham Road’s locally-based businesses saw a 71 percent increase in retail sales, compared to 23 percent borough-wide. Marin County, California added bike lanes to the busy Alameda del Prado roadway. As a result, the area saw a 366 percent increase in weekday bicyclists and 540 percent increase in weekend bicyclists 
Complete Streets policies normally allow for three kinds of exceptions to roadway projects roadways: freeways or other roads where non-motorized transportation is banned by law, roadways where the cost of accommodation would be too disproportionate to the need or expected use, and roadways where lack of present and future need is shown to make accommodation unnecessary.
Proponents of Complete Streets policies believe that they improve safety, lower transportation costs, provide transportation alternatives, encourage health through walking and biking, stimulate local economies, create a sense of place, improve social interaction, and generally improve adjacent property values. Opponents may consider automobile-only infrastructure to be a better use of public funds, or consider efforts to encourage other forms of transportation to be coercive. Individual projects and policies have sometimes faced specific local opposition, typically based on concerns over traffic flow and automobile access.
Complete streets policies are meant in part to improve safety, and various studies suggest that Complete Streets principles have done so. A Federal Highway Administration safety review found that designing the street with pedestrians in mind—sidewalks, raised medians, turning access controls, better bus stop placement, better lighting, traffic calming measures, and treatments for disabled travelers—all improve pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist safety. Rates of pedestrian injuries and fatalities decrease 88% when sidewalks are added, 69% hybrid beacon signals are added, and 39% when medians are added.[clarification needed]
A variety of reports and organizations have suggested that complete streets policies could improve public health by promoting walking and bicycling. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend adoption of a Complete Streets policy as a strategy to prevent obesity. A report of the National Conference of State Legislatures named Complete Streets policies as the most effective policy avenue for encouraging bicycling and walking. One study found that 43% of people with safe places to walk within 10 minutes of home met recommended physical activity levels, while just 27% of those without safe places to walk were active enough. The Institute of Medicine recommends fighting childhood obesity by changing ordinances to encourage construction of sidewalks, bikeways, and other places for physical activity. A report of the National Conference of State Legislators found that complete streets policies are the most effective policy avenue for encouraging bicycling and walking is complete streets. Over one third of regular public transit users meet the minimum daily requirement for physical activity.
Proponents of Complete Streets believe that as communities become safer, more attractive, and provide more transportation choices, local economies thrive and land values rise.
Successful Complete Streets implementation has helped some communities stimulate local economies. A revitalization project in Lancaster, CA helped create 50 new businesses and over 800 new jobs. After a 2007 Complete Streets redesign in parts of New York City, there was a nearly 50% increase in retail sales on 9th Avenue in Manhattan and nearly 50% decrease in commercial vacancies in Union Square.
Transit and bicycle/pedestrian projects create more jobs than traditional roadway jobs: Complete Streets projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 created more jobs than projects on road repair and new construction. Under the stimulus, transit projects created nearly twice the job hours for every $1 billion than highway projects. Pedestrian and bicycle projects create between 1.8 and 3.8 more jobs than auto-only projects.
Complete Streets can also have a positive effect on the environment. By providing safe options for people to walk and bike, Complete Streets can lead to fewer people driving alone in their cars. This means fewer dangerous emissions from automobiles, which benefits all residents.
The 2009 National Household Travel Survey found that 39% of all trips in metropolitan areas are three miles or less and 17% of all trips are one mile or less. Most of these trips can easily be made on foot or bicycle and Complete Streets provide the infrastructure to allow people to safely do so. Traveling by foot or bike are zero-emission means of travel.
Communities with strong Complete Streets policies and implementation, including Boulder, CO, see a reduction in their emissions. Over the last several years, fewer people in Boulder drove alone and bicycle and transit trips increased. As a result, the city cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by half a million pounds.
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- Newman, P. and J. Kenworthy. Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence. Washington, DC: Island Press. 1999.
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- Federal Highway Administration (2012) Report to the U.S. Congress on the Outcomes of the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program SAFETEA-LU Section 1807
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- National Household Travel Survey, 2009
This page was adapted, with permission, from informational materials developed by the National Complete Streets Coalition . This information is in the public domain, and is not copyrighted material.