Regardless of a policy’s form, the National Complete Streets Coalition has identified ten elements of a comprehensive Complete Streets policy, as discussed below. For more details on writing a strong, appropriate policy for your community, see our Complete Streets Local Policy Workbook (.pdf).
An ideal Complete Streets policy:
- Includes a vision for how and why the community wants to complete its streets
- Specifies that ‘all users’ includes pedestrians, bicyclists and transit passengers of all ages and abilities, as well as trucks, buses and automobiles.
- Applies to both new and retrofit projects, including design, planning, maintenance, and operations, for the entire right of way.
- Makes any exceptions specific and sets a clear procedure that requires high-level approval of exceptions.
- Encourages street connectivity and aims to create a comprehensive, integrated, connected network for all modes.
- Is adoptable by all agencies to cover all roads.
- Directs the use of the latest and best design criteria and guidelines while recognizing the need for flexibility in balancing user needs.
- Directs that Complete Streets solutions will complement the context of the community.
- Establishes performance standards with measurable outcomes.
- Includes specific next steps for implementation of the policy
Sets a vision
A strong vision can inspire a community to follow through on its Complete Streets policy. Just as no two policies are alike, visions are not one-size-fits-all either. In the small town of Decatur, GA, the Community Transportation Plan defines their vision as promoting health through physical activity and active transportation. In the City of Chicago, the Department of Transportation focuses on creating streets safe for travel by even the most vulnerable – children, older adults, and those with disabilities.
Specifies all users
A true Complete Streets policy must apply to everyone traveling along the road. A sidewalk without curb ramps is useless to someone using a wheelchair. A street with an awkwardly placed public transportation stop without safe crossings is dangerous for riders. A fast-moving road with no safe space for cyclists will discourage those who depend on bicycles for transportation. A road with heavy freight traffic must be planned with those vehicles in mind. Older adults and children face particular challenges as they are more likely to be seriously injured or killed along a roadway. Automobiles are an important part of a ‘complete’ street as well, as any change made to better accommodate other modes will have an effect on personal vehicles too. In some cases, like the installation of curb bulb-outs, these changes can improve traffic flow and the driving experience.
For many years, multi-modal streets have been treated as ‘special projects’ requiring extra planning, funding, and effort. The Complete Streets approach is different. Its intent is to view all transportation improvements as opportunities to create safer, more accessible streets for all users, including pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation passengers. Under this approach, even small projects can be an opportunity to make meaningful improvements. In repaving projects, for example, an edge stripe can be shifted to create more room for cyclists. In routine work on traffic lights, the timing can be changed to better accommodate pedestrians walking at a slower speed. A strong Complete Streets policy will integrate Complete Streets planning into all types of projects, including new construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, repair, and maintenance.
Making a policy work in the real world requires developing a process to handle exceptions to providing for all modes in each project. The Federal Highway Administration’s guidance on accommodating bicycle and pedestrian travel named three exceptions that have become commonly used in Complete Streets policies: 1) accommodation is not necessary on corridors where non-motorized use is prohibited, such as interstate freeways; 2) cost of accommodation is excessively disproportionate to the need or probable use; 3) a documented absence of current or future need. Many communities have included their own exceptions, such as severe topological constraints. In addition to defining exceptions, there must be a clear process for granting them, where a senior-level department head must approve them. Any exceptions should be kept on record and publicly-available.
Creates a network
Complete Streets policies should result in the creation of a complete transportation network for all modes of travel. A network approach helps to balance the needs of all users. Instead of trying to make each street perfect for every traveler, communities can create an interwoven array of streets that emphasize different modes and provide quality accessibility for everyone. This can mean creating bicycle boulevards to speed along bicycle travel on certain low-traffic routes; dedicating more travel lanes to bus travel only; or pedestrianizing segments of routes that are already overflowing with people on foot. It is important to provide basic safe access for all users regardless of design strategy and networks should not require some users to take long detours.
All agencies and all roads
Creating Complete Streets networks is difficult because many agencies control our streets. They are built and maintained by state, county, and local agencies, and private developers often build new roads. Typical Complete Streets policies cover only one jurisdiction’s roadways, which can cause network problems: a bike lane on one side of a bridge disappears on the other because the road is no longer controlled by the agency that built the lane. Another common issue to resolve is inclusion of Complete Streets elements in sub-division regulations, which govern how private developers build their new streets.
Communities adopting a Complete Streets policy should review their design policies to ensure their ability to accommodate all modes of travel, while still providing flexibility to allow designers to tailor the project to unique circumstances. Some communities will opt to re-write their design manual. Others will refer to existing design guides, such as those issued by AASHTO, state design standards, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines.
An effective Complete Streets policy must be sensitive to the community context. Being clear about this in the initial policy statement can allay fears that the policy will require inappropriately wide roads in quiet neighborhoods or miles of little-used sidewalks in rural areas. A strong statement about context can help align transportation and land use planning goals, creating livable, strong neighborhoods.
The traditional performance measure for transportation planning has been vehicular Level of Service (LOS) – a measure of automobile congestion. Complete Streets planning requires taking a broader look at how the system is serving all users. Communities with Complete Streets policies can measure success through a number of ways: the miles of on-street bicycle routes created; new linear feet of pedestrian accommodation; changes in the number of people using public transportation, bicycling, or walking (mode shift); number of new street trees; and/or the creation or adoption of a new multi-modal Level of Service standard that better measures the quality of travel experience. The fifth edition of Highway Capacity Manual, due out in 2010, will include this new way of measuring LOS. Cities like San Francisco and Charlotte have already begun to develop their own.
Taking a Complete Streets policy from paper into practice is not easy, but providing some momentum with specific implementation steps can help. Some policies establish a task force or commission to work toward policy implementation. There are four key steps for successful implementation: 1) Restructure procedures to accommodate all users on every project; 2) Develop new design policies and guides; 3) Offer workshops and other educational opportunities to transportation professionals, community leaders, and residents; and 4) Institute better ways to measure performance and collect data on how well the streets are serving all users.