Before there were cars, there were streets that accommodated multiple modes of travel. After the advent of automobiles, transportation agencies increasingly built streets only for cars. Because these incomplete streets lack sidewalks, raised medians, covered bus stops, and treatments for the disabled, they offer no relatively safe transportation option aside from driving.
Residents who must walk, bike, or take transit on an incomplete street are subjected to unnecessarily dangerous conditions. According to Transportation for America, approximately 76,000 people were killed while crossing or walking along a street between 1995 and 2010. Because the alternative is so dangerous or inconvenient, many people drive short distances. This worsens traffic congestion, degrades air quality, and represents a lost opportunity for improving wellness through increased physical activity. Moreover, an aging population requires complete streets that accommodate multiple modes of travel. Given the shortcomings of incomplete streets, many cities and counties (municipalities) have implemented complete streets policies that create safer and more inviting streets for all users.
The formulation of a complete street policy is dependent on each municipality's circumstances and the level of effort varies based on how a municipality pursues its complete streets policy. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, complete streets policies can take the form of:
- Ordinances or legislation that mandate complete streets
- Resolutions that encourage municipal staff to accommodate all users in transportation projects
- Inclusion of complete street principles in design manuals
- Incorporation of complete streets into comprehensive plans
- Internal guidance from heads of transportation agencies directing staff to accommodate all users
- Executive Orders from elected officials that direct the transportation agencies to accommodate all users
Municipalities should train staff on how the new complete streets policy impacts their area. Municipalities should also consider how to engage the community when developing their complete street policy. This engagement process should include an education component whereby elected officials, municipal employees, and residents obtain information from experts on policy development and implementation. Workshops give community participants an opportunity to learn, express concerns, and provide suggestions about their municipality's proposed complete streets policy. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, a good complete streets policy should:
- Include the community's complete streets rationale and vision
- Cover pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit passengers of all ages and abilities, as well as vehicles
- Create interconnected streets that accommodate all modes
- Have buy-in from or be adopted by all agencies responsible for the municipality's streets
- Apply to new construction and retrofits for the entire right-of-way
- Establish criteria and procedures for exceptions to the complete streets policy
- Recommend use of best design standards while retaining flexibility to accommodate/complement the context of the community
- Set performance standards and measurable results
- Contain an implementation timeline
Complete streets can provide many benefits to all communities irrespective of size or location including the following identified by the National Complete Streets Coalition:
- Grow economy and enhance tax base - Transportation options increase access to shops, restaurants, and jobs and raise property values by creating more inviting communities.
- Improve safety and mobility - Streets designed for multiple modes of transportation are safer for all users and increase mobility by allowing everyone including children, the elderly, and residents with disabilities to travel with the same level of safety and convenience.
- Improve health - Complete streets promote physical activity and decrease the number of cars on the road thereby improving air quality.
- Lower transportation costs - Transportation options allow families to spend less of their income on gasoline thereby increasing household savings and/or disposable income.
- Ease congestion and increasing road capacity - Complete streets reduce short-distance car trips thereby increasing the street's overall capacity to accommodate more travelers.
- Decrease overall municipal budget - Complete streets can incorporate green infrastructure features that reduce stormwater runoff and lower overall transit costs by reducing usage of short-distance curb-to-curb transit service.
Municipalities can fail to implement their complete streets policy. Therefore the American Planning Association recommends each municipality create an implementation plan that identifies documents and processes that it needs to modify, assigns responsibilities, and names specific documents/processes that the municipality should create as part of its complete streets implementation. Municipalities can overlook potential users at the beginning of a complete streets project. Municipalities can mitigate this risk by crafting questions, steps, checklists, or decision trees for use throughout the planning, scoping, and final design processes to ensure that municipal staff consider all users from the project's inception. Municipalities should also record their complete streets performance statistics to address any concerns the community might have regarding the efficacy of a complete streets implementation.
A municipality should craft its complete streets policy with input from all relevant departments including the fire department, planners, and traffic engineers, as well as transit agencies. In some cases, it may be necessary for a municipality to communicate its complete street vision to its state Department of Transportation. A municipality should also engage the broader community, particularly low-income, elderly, and disable residents, to obtain input regarding their needs and to educate the public about the municipality's efforts to create complete streets.
Municipalities should analyze costs of complete streets in the context of the economic and societal impact of incomplete streets. Creating complete streets can save municipalities the costs of performing expensive and sometimes suboptimal multi-modal retrofits of an incomplete street. Complete streets can also lower initial construction and ongoing maintenance costs by requiring less pavement. Some complete street features have no costs (e.g., changing pedestrian signal timing) or limited costs and can tremendously improve the economic and physical health of the community. Even if a complete street design increases the upfront cost of a project, it can reduce the municipality's total long-term expenditures.