December 03, 2010

Complete Streets in North America: A Policy Platform to help Foster Healthy, Liveable Communities

By: Ryan Anders Whitney

A Street Renaissance in North America?

North America is on the verge of a new paradigm of street design, with planning authorities recognizing that people-based street design is the key to fostering vibrant cities. At the forefront of the ‘street revolution’ is the concept of Complete Streets, a policy tool to ensure that road design considers the needs of all users: pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users, the elderly, the disabled, and drivers.

Figure 1: Benches on a Pedestrian Crossing on Allen Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Figure 1 Benches on a Pedestrian Crossing on Allen Street Lower East Side Manhattan


Complete Streets Policies are rooted in a simple notion: people make our cities, and thus our planning practices should cater to the needs of people. For too long, roads in the United States and Canada have been designed to move cars rather than people. Instead, the road network should form an integrated system, designed to connect a wide variety of transportation options.

Complete Streets Policies and Implementation

The National Complete Streets Coalition, based in Washington D.C., has achieved much success over the past four years in North America, and specifically supports the adoption of Complete Streets Policies at municipal, state, and, ultimately, federal level.  Once such a policy is adopted, it directs transportation planners and engineers to consistently ensure that roads are designed to accommodate all anticipated users, and represents the relevant authority’s desire to make roads safe for people of all ages and abilities.

Depending on the road context, infrastructure considerations can include bike lanes, wider sidewalks, curb extensions, median islands, better-placed public transport stops, bus rapid transit lanes, and safe pedestrian crossings. Key to the infrastructure requirements is continuity and uniformity, meaning that, for instance, a sidewalk will not begin on one block and end on the next.

Figure 2: A Bus Rapid Transit Lane on 1st Avenue, East Village, Manhattan
Figure 2 A Bus Rapid Transit Lane on 1st Avenue East Village Manhattan

To create long-term change, however, the policy must be implemented rigorously.  The adopting body, whether a municipality, province or state, must be aggressive when ensuring that planners, engineers, and developers adhere to the policy guidelines. If planning and policy does not equate to practice, Complete Streets can simply become an unrealized ideal, and street design will remain ‘business- as-usual’.

Why Complete Streets?

The adoption of a Complete Streets Policy is a step towards fostering a healthy, vibrant community. The policies help tackle complex issues, including public obesity, traffic congestion, pollution, and economic revitalization, through ensuring that people have access to various forms of transportation infrastructure.  In other words, when there are more options to get around other than driving, the negative consequences associated with automobile-centric infrastructure are reduced.

Figure 3: A Cycle Lane on the Corner of Bleecker and Bowery, NoHo, Manhattan
Figure 3 A Cycle Lane on the Corner of Bleecker and Bowery NoHo Manhattan


Building Complete Streets can encourage active transportation options, such as walking and cycling. Furthermore, Complete Streets provide safe opportunities for children to walk to school by reducing traffic danger; minimize our dependency on oil; reduce carbon emissions; and create more vibrant communities through providing more opportunities and incentives to walk. And when there are more people on our streets, there are more economic opportunities for business owners.

A Global Option

A diversified transportation system can also empower low-income individuals. Driving is expensive, where as walking, cycling, and, in many cases, transit, are more economical and environmentally responsible options. Access to transportation options has particular relevance in the developing world where automobile infrastructure continues to plan the poor out of cities. Policy makers can be more conscious of planning for the urban poor by designing streets to meet the needs of all users. Ensuring that roads have pedestrian and cycling infrastructure whenever a road is built, would be a major step towards planning and transportation equality.

Road design favoring automobiles is not only an environmental issue, but also a question of equality and ethics. As western-based aid organizations continue to fuel road construction in the developing world, it is of utmost important they do not loose sight of how people travel within their respective cities. In cities where the urban population is primarily poor, the transportation network must provide options for everyone – walking and cycling infrastructure is an inexpensive example of how this balance can be achieved.

Current Status of Policy Adoption

To date, 165 jurisdictions have adopted Complete Streets Policies or have committed to do so in the United States. In Canada, the concept is gaining popularity as well, with attention brewing at the federal level and in major cities, including Calgary and Toronto.  In fact, both cities currently have a strong network of advocates working towards the municipal adoption of a Complete Streets Policy. Even more promising is the City of Waterloo, where the new Transportation Mater Plan uses Complete Streets as a cornerstone component.

It is in the United States, however, where the most inspiring work has been done. In the last nine months alone, forty-five communities have adopted Complete Streets policies, adding to the jurisdictions that have already adopted policies across the country.

What does a Complete Streets Policy Look Like?

There is no universal formula for a successful Complete Streets Policy.  Rather, the policy is adopted on the unique needs of each community. For example, street design in a city such as New York is much different compared to that of suburban Atlanta. These local needs must be reflected in the policy design.

In practice, the more complex the urban environment, the more complex the streets, and a policy must reflect this. Streets in dense, heavily populated environments, such as 2nd Avenue in New York, can accommodate a wide variety of infrastructure, including wide sidewalks, bus rapid transit lanes, and cycling lanes. In less dense environments, such as a street in a suburban neighborhood, needs are different; here, sharrows could replace segregated bike lanes, and a transit stop would be more effective than a bus rapid transit lane.

While every policy is different, the National Complete Streets Coalition has outlined some key considerations when developing a policy. For more information, please visit:

Our Cities, Our Future

At the core of the adoption of a Complete Streets Policy is the recognition that our planning practices need to change. Designing our road network, and consequently our urban environments, around automobiles reduces the liveability of our cities and contributes to a slew of negative consequences, including oil dependency, congestion, and pollution.

As we enter into the second decade of the new millennium, it is promising that many cities in North America are beginning to see the value that pedestrians, cyclists, and transit play in the creation of vibrant, sustainable cities.  However, there is a lot of work to be done both on this continent, and abroad.

Fortunately, Complete Streets is a tool that can be used globally, in all urban contexts.  Wherever there is a city, there are people, and consequently, mobility demands. Most importantly, wherever there is a city, there is need for local governments to direct resources towards a diversified transportation system that will improve the health of residents, and ultimately improve the liveability of the entire urban region. Residents and local government alike should be proactive in pushing progressive street design practices, and work towards making their respective communities places where people flourish.

After all, no one wants to be stuck in traffic.


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