COMPLETE STREETS: Design Elements, New Priorities, Means To An End

Compared with traffic engineers’ traditional focus on moving many cars as fast as possible, adoption of a “Complete Streets” policy at the state or local level is a huge improvement.  Designing streets to serve all modes and all types of users within those modes turns out to create a safer and more movement-efficient transportation system for everyone – including fewer car accidents and injuries!

(The key reason is that while a well-designed multi-modal road doesn’t significantly reduce car throughput – the number of cars passing through a stretch of pavement in a given time period – the presence of different kinds of users and the narrower lanes lead drivers to feel more comfortable going at lower speeds.  Meaning, as my mother used to say, that there is less “racing to the next red light.” And slower speeds equal fewer injuries – for everyone.)

But going from policy to reality requires several additional steps.  First, traffic engineers need to learn how to design a complete street – which requires an unsettling change from what they were once taught was best practice and what they’ve been required to do for their entire previous career.  Second, the design, approval, and construction processes need to be changed so that creating Complete Streets is the default approach in every project, with exceptions allowed only after high level approval for very limited and documented reasons.  Third, transportation agencies and governmental oversight groups need to set up meaningful accountability systems so that people at every level involved in road construction are held accountable for the final results.  Finally, in Massachusetts, where Complete Streets already is a state policy (as expressed in the 2009 Transportation Act that created MassDOT and in the state’s Highway Design Guidelines) the state needs to use all its leverage and power to get municipalities to move in the same direction despite their official exemption from Highway Design Guidelines for local projects funded under Chapter 90.

MassDOT has begun a Complete Streets training program for its own staff and, hopefully, municipal traffic officials.  But education is only the first step.  Next, MassDOT – like transportation agencies in every state trying to move into the 21st century – has to find ways to move from knowledge to practice.


From Slogan To Design

Complete Streets is a vision that has already become jargon.  According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, a Complete Street is “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users: pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street.”

However, simply adding a crosswalk or a bike lane does not create a Complete Street.  While it’s better to have them than not, these are simply superficial components. Too many engineers think that finding space to squeeze in a couple of pedestrian- and bike-friendly elements means they’ve fulfilled the new policy’s requirements.  But when pressed, it is clear that the top priority of their design remains reducing car congestion and the strategies they are using are derived from research done on high-speed highways – longer sight-lines, gentle curves, wide lanes.    The pedestrian and bike accommodations are fit into the remaining space.

The real test of Complete Street is not the concrete shapes or even the paint it contains but the user experience – does someone pushing a baby carriage or using a walker feel comfortable at intersections, do people feel enticed to stop and talk with each other, is the space pleasing to see and smell and listen to, do bicyclists feel they have appropriate separate space away from cars (and pedestrians), etc.?

Although it may also be too rapidly turning into jargon, a key part of Complete Streets is “designing from the outside inward.”  This is not merely a geometric mandate.  If taken seriously it is a modal prioritization requirement – first ensure that pedestrians have the maximum possible space and safety, then take care of the needs of bicyclists, then make sure that transit vehicles can operate at maximum efficiency, and finally – in the remaining space – do the best you can for cars and trucks.

In effect, this is a “vulnerable user protection” policy for the entire right of way – including the sidewalk and road, from building-edge to the opposite side.  While this approach is explicitly mandated by the Massachusetts Highway Design Guidelines it is, in truth, an extremely radical change from traditional road design and barely understood – much less carried out – by many of MassDOT’s staff and by even fewer municipal traffic officials.  Roads designed in this way will look very different than today’s street – although cars may end up taking no more time to get through.

Moving Beyond Tokenism

A possible transitional strategy, from current car-centric designs to Complete Streets, may be to push road designers to go beyond the minimal requirements.  Massachusetts’ Highway Design Guidelines were a huge advance over previous policies because they allowed on-site flexibility to adjust road layouts to the local context.  “Context sensitive design” is based on the insight that “one-size-fits-all” doesn’t work, that lane widths and road shapes need to reflect the immediate surroundings – urban roads can use different specifications than rural roads and from Interstates.

As the National Complete Streets Coalition points out:  “There is no singular design prescription for Complete Streets; each one is unique and responds to its community context. A complete street may include: sidewalks, bike lanes (or wide paved shoulders), special bus lanes, comfortable and accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crossing opportunities, median islands, accessible pedestrian signals, curb extensions, narrower travel lanes, roundabouts, and more.  A complete street in a rural area will look quite different from a complete street in a highly urban area, but both are designed to balance safety and convenience for everyone using the road.”  (See ‘Many Types of Complete Streets’ slideshow for examples.)

However, the strength and weakness of flexibility is that it leaves decision-making in the hands of the on-site engineer; and an engineer who still believes in the experience-proven truth of traditional design can always find lots of reasons not to incorporate more than the minimal pedestrian and bicycle accommodations.

Perhaps MassDOT needs to begin establishing maximal standards that each road should incorporate – with the caveat that exceptions are allowed only when the need is fully documented and accepted after a high level review.  In this context, we need to begin thinking seriously about expanding sidewalks, creating physically separated cycle tracks instead of on-road bike lanes, and exclusive bus lanes along with bus pull-outs – these are now recognized best practices in other parts of the world and should be our aspirational goal here, too.  And research shows that these not only improve safety but also create a more sustainable and cost-effective transportation system.  For bicyclists, in particular, the presence of a robust infrastructure not only reduces injuries – including fewer “intersection surprises” and “right hook” injuries – but also leads to fewer anti-social behaviors by rouge cyclists.  A check-list of “hoped-for” design elements, including numerical criteria, would be one starting point.

From Exceptional To Normal

Furthermore, having a Complete Streets policy implies that creating them should not be a case-by-case struggle, requiring the presence and pressure of advocates, but a default norm.  This means changing the process of creating a design – inviting stakeholder input during the conceptual (or even pre-conceptual) stages rather than waiting for the mandated 25% public comment event.  Senior citizen groups, parents of school-age kids, local businesses, health officials, community development leaders, fire fighters, and others should be invited as well as pedestrian, bicycle, and transit advocates.

And people need to be held accountable for the final result.  In practice, each of MassDOT’s six districts has a great deal of autonomy.  In order to decrease bureaucracy and increase local innovation, the central office can advise but seldom order.  This is a good way to push responsibility to the front lines and make things happen faster.  But it has to be backed up by accountability – not merely for following the correct procedures and filling out the right paperwork but for the actual “facts on the ground.”  In some way, local project managers have to be rewarded or punished for the degree to which they’ve incorporated the full meaning of Complete Streets in the roads they’ve created.

Facilitating The Future

The ultimate purpose of a Complete Street is not simply to move people around better, although that is an important goal.  The ultimate purpose is to help create more livable communities – healthy, friendly, sustainable, prosperous, and diverse.  It’s a lot to ask of concrete and paint – except for the fact that the misuse of those materials can make it extremely hard to do the other things that are needed.

Accountability should not be primarily a punitive strategy.  It needs to be implemented in a way that encourages transportation project managers to reach out to the public and help build understanding of benefits of Complete Streets to our entire community.  In fact, one of the serious obstacles to creation of Complete Streets is public misunderstanding.  Many people still believe that adding cross walks and stop signs, or narrowing traffic lanes, or incorporating bike lanes, will create congestion.  The state’s engineers have to be challenged to be evangelists for this superior approach – to not respond to questions about “why” with “because we have to,” but to convincingly explain how Complete Streets can improve car safety, allow more senior citizens to stay in their homes, increase foot traffic for local businesses – without causing huge backups.  Engineers – especially those employed by public agencies – have been taught to stay technical and neutral.  But in a time of change, their opinions carry weight.  It is vital that the state find ways to use their experience and credibility for the public good.


According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, an ideal complete streets policy:

For examples of strong policy language, see Complete Streets Policy Analysis 2010: A Story of Growing Strength that assessed the strength of policies adopted through the end of 2010.


Relevant Previous Posts:

DESIGNING A TRANSPORTATION REPORT CARD: Ideas for a State Bike & Pedestrian Facility Progress Report


Improving Intersection Safety; Defining Lanes; Bus Prioritization

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