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Complete Streets Policies Surge in Popularity

A new report says 488 states, counties and cities now have a plan that calls for streets that are "safe for all users of all ages and abilities."

Want to spend less time in your car? Consider these statistics: Nearly 40 percent of all road trips are less than 3 miles; 17 percent of every trip made is less than a mile; and of that 17 percent, 47 percent are made by car, according to the advocacy group Smart Growth America. That's because 73 percent of Americans have absolutely no access to sidewalks or bike lanes, making the car their best and safest option.

But with two-thirds of Americans saying they want more transportation options so they can choose how they move about, hundreds of communities are now mobilizing to plan, design and operate streets "that are safe for all users of all ages and abilities," according to a new report from Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition (NCSC). That means many communities are calling for the funding and construction of streets with sidewalks, crosswalks, medians, bike lanes, and even separate bus and streetcar lanes.

In 2012 alone, 130 communities adopted complete street policies, according to the report, "The Best Complete Street Policies of 2012." When the NCSC started in 2005, "we would get excited when there were 20 new policies in a year," says Deputy Director Stefanie Seskin. "But these new numbers show that the complete streets commitment is here to stay."

So why are communities from Portland, Maine, to Huntington Beach, Calif., jumping on the complete streets bandwagon? Besides the fact that citizens are asking for more options, streets are considered a valuable piece of real estate, says Roger M. Millar, NCSC's director. When communities make their streets safer and available to all users, including the 30 percent of Americans who don't drive, they see a big payoff, he says. Real estate development companies recognize that communities with complete street policies are more attractive to build in than those without them. The net result is that communities with complete street policies are more economically viable and can compete better when it comes to attracting new residents and businesses.

Cost issues loom large among complete street skeptics. But NCSC says the kind of projects that are taking place can be achieved within the context of existing transportation budgets -- and sometimes can even save money. The Washington state Department of Transportation found that a complete streets process could save an average of $9 million per project, or about 30 percent, when rehabilitating highways that run through small towns and act as their main streets. (The report found that most of the new complete street policies in 2012 come from small suburbs, 37 percent, and small towns, 22 percent.)

Costs can be kept low for two reasons, according to NCSC's Seskin. First, "it's important to build streets right the first time," she says. Complete street policies bring all stakeholders to the table in terms of planning and design. "That way, you don't have to go back and add sidewalks, bike lanes and medians later on." Second, a lot of these projects are small and affordable. "They are not big ticket items."

Still, the adoption of complete street policies is not a slam dunk in every community. Last year, Great Falls, Mont., took up the issue in a town meeting to discuss a draft set of policies. A near-capacity audience jammed a local auditorium, with half the attendees strongly opposed to the new policies, according to the Great Falls Tribune. Opponents complained that complete streets would eliminate parking, narrow roads and take away transportation dollars in the town of 59,000.

"It doesn't seem to make sense that it's not going to be more expensive when streets that previously were just going to get stripped are now going to get sidewalks, lights and meridians," one opponent told the Tribune.

In the end, the Great Falls City Commission rejected the plan to adopt a complete streets policy. But the issue is expected to come to the commission table again in the near future.

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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