How Complete Streets Are Improving American Communities

The Zebra
Sept. 20, 2019

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As automobiles proliferated in the years following World War II, America’s streets were designed to prioritize a single mode of transportation: the car. These streets, sometimes referred to as “incomplete streets,” reinforce the automobile as the primary transportation option across much of the country. Americans who might prefer to travel by foot or bicycle are often unable to do so without putting their safety at risk. 

The "complete streets" concept is meant to counter this approach. Designed to be comfortable and safe for all, "complete streets" are emerging as an urban planning and design trend across America. This more inclusive approach to street design allows people to choose from various modes of transportation, makes streets safer for people with disabilities, reduces carbon emissions, beautifies communities, and helps to spark local economic growth. 

The Complete Streets Act of 2019 — a second attempt by political leaders to introduce federal complete street legislation — was recently introduced to Congress. Read on or jump to the infographic to learn about complete streets' potential to benefit communities across the United States.

 

What are complete streets? 

The term “complete streets” refers to the transportation policy and design approach requiring streets to be safe and comfortable for all users, no matter their mode of transportation. The idea dates back to 1971, when the state of Oregon enacted a policy requiring all new or rebuilt roads to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians. 

There isn’t a universal formula used by cities to create complete streets. Different localities have different needs, so complete streets around the country utilize unique components.

Below are some of the design elements of complete streets:

 

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Pedestrian infrastructure 

Sidewalks, crosswalks, median crossing islands, and other pedestrian areas allow people to travel comfortably and safely by foot. 

Disabilities Act of 1990-compliant facilities 

Audible cues for people with low vision, pushbuttons within reach of people in wheelchairs, and wheelchair-friendly curbs ensure complete streets are accessible to all. 

Traffic calming measures 

Center medians, elimination of free-flow right-turn lanes, and face-out parking slow traffic and create safety barriers around motorized vehicles. 

Cycling infrastructure

Dedicated bicycle lanes, greenways, and bicycle parking give residents and visitors the option to travel by bike, a healthy and eco-friendly alternative to car travel. 

Public transit accommodations

Bus fare prepay stations, bus shelters, and bus lanes make public transit more efficient and comfortable, encouraging more people to travel by bus. 

Green spaces

Landscaped zones, trees, and vegetated refuge areas beautify the streetscape, purify the air, and help prevent flooding.

 

Where can you find complete streets?

Complete streets have come a long way since their introduction in Oregon. In 2005, an alliance of advocacy groups founded The National Complete Streets Coalition, and although a 2009 bill proposing federal complete street legislation died in Congress, many jurisdictions have enacted their own policies. At present, 33 states — plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — have adopted complete street policies

 

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Benefits of complete streets

Now that complete street policies have been in effect for a while, case studies and increasingly well-defined success metrics have shown the potential benefits of the approach. 

In Boulder, Colorado, the city's complete streets program helped reduce annual CO2 emissions by half a million pounds. In Florida, complete streets helped to save an estimated 3,500 lives over 30 years. In New York City, bus commute times have shortened and the number of bus riders has increased by 10 percent

The benefits of human-focused urban design are broad and varied, prompting advocates to tout complete street policy as the most important initiative for the future sustainability, livability, and health of American communities.

 

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Eco benefits of complete streets

By encouraging people to walk, bicycle, and take public transport, complete streets reduce a community's carbon emissions footprint. Green spaces purify the air and absorb rainwater. 

Safety benefits of complete streets 

Streets designed to accommodate all forms of transportation may save the lives of cyclists and pedestrians and reduce motor vehicle crashes. 

Health benefits of complete streets 

Safe streets, sidewalks, and green spaces for pedestrians encourage walking, reducing the levels of obesity and other chronic diseases. Reducing emissions improves air quality.

Community benefits of complete streets

Streets designed to accommodate all methods of transportation allow people to easily travel even if they are unable to drive a car. Common areas and accessible shops encourage socialization, increase commerce levels, and improve community well-being.

Complete street policies are being adopted nationwide and could soon be written into federal law. These inclusive streets can save lives and improve livability across the country. Whether you’re traveling by car or another mode of transportation, complete streets will make getting where you’re going safer and more enjoyable.