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Ranking the Best Policies for Complete Streets

Smart Growth America is restarting its annual reports on the best policies to promote safe and accessible streets. Howard County, Md., got a perfect 100.

Howard County residents biking on a tree-lined trail in Columbia, Md. (Howard County)
In Brief:
  • Smart Growth America defines complete streets as a planning, design and construction approach that creates safe access to streets for all users. 

  • It ranks policies passed by cities and counties based on 10 evaluation criteria.

  • The group will host a webinar this week with local advocates and practitioners who helped create high-ranking policies.

  • For the first time in four years, Smart Growth America has released a report ranking the safest and most accessible “complete streets” policies passed by cities and counties around the country. And coming in at No. 1, with a perfect 100-point score, is Howard County, Md., in suburban Baltimore.

    Smart Growth America, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., defines complete streets as “an approach to planning, designing, building, operating and maintaining streets that enables safe access for all people who need to use them, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.”

    The group began releasing yearly reports ranking local complete streets policies in 2012, but paused after the 2018 report because of the pandemic. Its rankings are based on a framework, updated after 2018, that emphasizes 10 criteria, from setting clear goals to prioritizing underinvested neighborhoods and requiring proactive land-use planning. The new report covers the last four years of approved policies, 157 in all.

    “You’ll see representation of every type of geographic location, size, density,” says Heidi Simon, director of thriving communities at Smart Growth America. “We really feel that a complete streets policy won’t look exactly the same in every single community but that it’s important for every city to have one.”

    What makes Howard County’s policy so successful? Partly it was the degree of community engagement and buy-in that leaders built over the course of the six years it took to pass the policy, Simon says. It’s about emphasizing equity, too, with projects prioritized in Black and brown communities, says Glenn Schneider, chief program officer at the Horizon Foundation, a health-focused philanthropy based in Howard County.

    The Howard County policy was adopted in 2019, with a Complete Streets Design Manual adopted in 2022. It is focused on creating a network of roads and paths that accommodate likely trips throughout the county by car, bike, foot and transit, while acknowledging that “every street does not necessarily need to provide separate accommodations for every mode.” It also declares that safety is the highest priority in cases where different needs come into conflict, as roadway injuries and pedestrian deaths have both risen in recent years around the U.S. One project that’s been completed since the policy was adopted is the creation of new sidewalks and traffic signals at an intersection in the Guilford section of Columbia, Md., where a woman died after driving through a stop sign in 2018. The historically Black community in that area had been asking for improvements to the intersection for years, Schneider says.

    “By centering equity in the work we do, we’re able to better affect where projects are done and how they are done,” Schneider says.

    Designing streets for multiple modes of travel can be tricky logistically as well as politically. “Road diets,” which remove car lanes to add more space for walking and biking, have been controversial all over the country, with Texas going so far as to ban them on state roads. There was some opposition to aspects of the complete streets policy in Howard County, Schneider says. But “on the whole I think we’re starting to see a change in the community because of the improvements that people are starting to see.”

    Building the right coalition of supporters, and getting buy-in from every part of the community, are critical to passing effective complete streets policies, says Simon. Different arguments for complete streets might be salient in different places, depending on the challenges different communities are facing.

    “Safety and health benefits are at the top of mind, but we also see economic growth, addressing environmental concerns, community connectivity and social infrastructure — all those are benefits that come from a complete streets policy and its implementation,” Simon says.

    Cities with high-ranking complete streets policies adopted in the last few years include El Paso, Tucson and Joplin, Mo. Advocates and planners in those cities will participate in a webinar hosted by Smart Growth America on Wednesday, May 24, to discuss how they developed their policies, who they brought together and how they got them passed.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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