Completing Our Streets: Celebrating 500 Policies

This post is the first in a series of excerpts from Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, the forthcoming book from Island Press written by Barbara McCann, founder of the National Complete Streets Coalition. The book discusses the keys to the movement’s success, and how places and practitioners in the United States are tackling the challenges of putting a new transportation paradigm into daily practice. This series will run twice monthly. Look for the book out on October 14, 2013.

Completing Our Streets coverThe passage of the 500th Complete Streets policy was a remarkable moment, especially for those of us who felt bold back in 2005 when we set the first goal for the National Complete Streets Coalition: new policies in five states and twenty-five local jurisdictions, more than doubling the policies in existence at that time. Since then the Complete Streets movement has helped bring about a tremendous burst of activity in changing how roads are planned, funded, designed, and built.

The Complete Streets movement, though, is far from the first to point out that roads should be safe for everyone traveling along them, or to argue for more transportation choices. Why did the movement take off the way it did? What does this success teach us about the next steps in creating roads that are safe for all users?

Last year I stepped down from leading the Coalition to take some time to try to answer these questions. I knew that while supporters love the name, many don’t look beyond its definition as a street that is designed to be safe for everyone using it. I also knew that the movement’s success is rooted not in this simple definition, but in the strategies we have used to change transportation practice.

These strategies had little to do with defining exactly what an individual Complete Street looks like. The lack of a design focus may surprise anyone who is following the explosion of exciting new street design guidelines, manuals, books, and individual projects that are getting deserved attention in transportation circles these days.

But defining the problem as a design issue—in a field already tightly bound by technical specifications—has obscured the other ingredients necessary to move a system fixated on providing for a single mode. The Complete Streets movement takes a step back and defines the problem differently. In our view, the primary problem is political and cultural. If transportation agencies are hewing to outdated design standards and still solving the problem of building roads for automobile speed and capacity, then the solution is for community leaders to be very clear that they now have a different problem for transportation professionals to solve. The day-to-day decisions made by planners and engineers may seem technical, but they are driven by an underlying political decision and by the priorities and values of the community. A Complete Streets policy initiative provides the clear direction to begin to change those decisions. And reaching the milestone of 500 policies indicates that we’re on to something.

It also indicates that with so many communities turning toward putting their Complete Streets commitment into action, we need to be sure that their focus remains on changing policies, practices, and values. Understanding this is important as the movement matures and debates over individual projects begin to grab attention. If Complete Streets are pursued only as a design problem, fundamental change won’t ever penetrate a transportation project delivery process that assumes its job is to move motor vehicles; communities will still be stuck with familiar and frustrating project-by-project battles. Practitioners and advocates of safer streets need to continually pull back the curtain to reveal and change the underlying processes and values that led to the final design we see on the street. This is at the heart of the Complete Streets approach.

The National Complete Streets Coalition is growing right along with the movement, and is working to ensure that places that have made the initial commitment to Complete Streets have what they need to fully realize the Complete Streets approach. A series of valuable new resources are on the way; watch for them under the new implementation page in the Complete Streets section of our website.

Resources about how to make the transition are especially valuable because so much is already available about the problems created by our automobile-oriented transportation system, and even more has been written that lays out beautiful, innovative templates for the ideal multimodal streets and compact, walkable towns and neighborhoods. But most places are somewhere in the middle—grappling with current conditions as they make their way to creating better, safer streets. The National Complete Streets Coalition works to support these communities through its projects, workshops, and resources.

My new book, Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, focuses on these places, telling the stories of communities that are successfully converting to a Complete Streets approach. Over the next few months, excerpts from the book will appear on this blog, along with links to related Coalition work, adding to the great number of resources available to all communities looking to implement Complete Streets.

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