The Coalition is actively working with its many member organizations to develop flexible and helpful model policies for the use by advocates, legislators, and transportation professionals in communities, regions, and states across the country. Our approach, as discussed below, is aimed at achieving systematic change in transportation engineering and planning.
Our Policy Elements page identifies and discusses the key elements of a comprehensive Complete Streets policy. These elements provide strong basis for many existing policies and should be considered when developing new policy at any level.
Understanding the Complete Streets Approach
The National Complete Streets Coalition focuses on creating culture change, process change, and re-prioritization inside the sophisticated and established profession of transportation planning and engineering to ensure roads are designed, operated, and maintained for all users. We have a strong track record, achieving significant change in the transportation landscape in only a few years.
In the realm of street design, engineers are the licensed professionals charged with safe and efficient operation of the transportation system. It is extremely difficult, and perhaps inappropriate, for elected officials to tread into the territory of prescriptive street design. We have learned that engineers are inherently problem solvers, and the best way to change their focus is to change the definition of the problem. With the complete streets concept, we are working to change the paradigm from “moving cars quickly” to “providing safe mobility for all modes.”
In our systems approach to Complete Streets, the redefinition of the problem is the purview of decision-makers, while the final approval of the designs to achieve the desired outcomes lies with the traffic engineers. We have found that a cooperative approach with street designers and traffic engineers is critical to effective policy implementation. We have learned that success ultimately relies on cultivating positive relationships and strategic partnerships inside the profession, as we ask them to do things that are new, complex, and counter to traditional engineering mindsets.
Our approach is working. We see systems change taking place in locations from California to North Carolina to the upper Midwest. Professionals in places with Complete Streets policies are building streets that have safe, convenient places for people to walk, bicycle, and catch the bus. Based on this experience, we believe that the most effective complete streets laws or policies primarily engage decision makers in an appropriate role of setting a new standard of intent and defining desired outcomes, rather than attempting to force specific changes through an enforcement mechanism.
Using Policy to Establish a New Social Norm
The power of the term “Complete Streets” is that it fundamentally redefines what a street is intended to do, what goals a transportation agency is going to meet, and how the community will spend its transportation money. It breaks down the traditional separation of ‘highways,’ ‘transit,’ and ‘biking/walking,’ and instead focuses on the desired outcome of a transportation system that supports safe use of all modes, as appropriate.
The most powerful Complete Streets policies state the new intent clearly and directly. For example, the City of Seattle ordinance reads: “SDOT will plan for, design and construct all new City transportation improvement projects to provide appropriate accommodation for pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and persons of all abilities, while promoting safe operation for all users, as provided for below.”
In contrast, legislated policies focused on defining the specific infrastructure to be installed to create a “complete street” can be problematic. In this case, “Complete Streets Elements” becomes a synonym for the most obvious bicycle/pedestrian/transit features of a roadway, such as bike lanes and sidewalks. This framing perpetuates the separation of modes and the perception that a road for cars is fundamentally different from the road for other users, that only some roads should be “complete streets,” and that these roads require special ‘amenities.’ Furthermore, it can lead to decisions that multimodal improvements must be funded separately from ‘mainstream’ transportation programs. This compartmentalization sends advocates right back where they started: fighting for additional funding, instead of changing the fundamental priorities of the agency and of existing programs and funding.
In addition, attempting to define the specific transportation elements used in a Complete Streets approach could lead to a debate at the decision-maker level on which elements would be included. This may lead to a prescriptive policy that would be resisted by transportation agencies as stepping too far into their area of expertise. In our experience, these details are better dealt with in the implementation phase, rather than in the body of a law or ordinance.
Keeping these points in mind can help communities focus on creating a Complete Streets policy with a clear and strong intent, yet with the flexibility to help transportation professionals do their jobs. Be sure to use our Complete Streets Atlas to look for existing policies in your region.