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History of Complete Streets in the United States

An incomplete street and dangerous pedestrian behavior

Transportation planning and roadway design in the United States have traditionally focused on the needs of drivers rather than those of all users of the street. Over time, this unbalanced approach contributed to the development of a built environment where alternative modes of transportation (e.g., walking, bicycling, transit, etc.) are often inconvenient, unattractive, and dangerous [1]. Since the 1970s, advocacy groups have responded by championing the idea of “routine accommodation” in which the needs of cyclists and pedestrians would be considered during all roadway projects [2]. The states of Oregon (1971) and Florida (1984) were the first to embrace this idea [3] and, on a federal level, routine accommodation was incorporated into initiatives including the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century (1998), and policy guidance issued by the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation [4].

In 2003, bicycle advocates suggested replacing the technical phrase “routine accommodation” with a more powerful and inclusive term: Complete Streets [5]. Representatives from American Bikes and the League of American Bicyclists subsequently formed the Complete Streets Task Force, which garnered active participation from groups such as American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the American Planning Association (APA), the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), and the American Heart Association (AHA) [6]. The Task Force initially focused on lobbying for a Complete Streets policy in the subsequent federal transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU (2005), but soon widened its goal to state and local policy change [7]. In 2005, the Task Force Steering Committee formed the National Complete Streets Coalition, which continues to advocate for the adoption of Complete Streets policies at all levels of government [8]. According to the Coalition, “a total of 448 regional and local jurisdictions, 27 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have adopted [Complete Streets] policies or have made written commitment to do so” [9].

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a policy statement that declares “…DOT policy is to incorporate safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities into transportation projects” and state and local governments, public agencies, and other organizations should adopted similar policies [10]. Additionally, in 2011, bills were introduced in both chambers of Congress that would have required state DOTs and MPOs to consider “safety and convenience” of all roadway users during transportation projects but did not pass committee review [11]. To date, the federal government has yet to adopt a Complete Streets policy and, despite recent momentum, the majority of regional, state, and local jurisdictions in the United States have yet to embrace the idea. Accordingly, Complete Streets proponents continue to advocate for the adoption of Complete Streets policies at all levels of government [12].

[1] Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. 2012. “Complete Streets Toolkit: A Guide for Central Ohio Communities.” pg. 2-1
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] Delaware Department of Transportation. 2011. “Complete Streets in Delaware: A Guide for Local Governments.” pg. 15
[5] National Complete Streets Coalition. “Who We Are.”
[6] ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] ibid.
[9] National Complete Streets Coalition. “Policy Atlas.”
[10] Federal Highway Administration. 2010. “United States Department of Transportation Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations.”
[11] Delaware Department of Transportation. 2011. “Complete Streets in Delaware: A Guide for Local Governments.” pg. 48
[12] Special thanks to Scott Fishberg for compiling the above information

What are Complete Streets?

A Complete Street in Madison, NJ

The National Complete Streets Coalition states that “Complete Streets are for everyone. They are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users… [so that] pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and public transportation users of all ages and ability are able to safely move along and across [the street]” [1]. New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) expands this definition by noting that Complete Streets “[balance] the needs of drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit vehicles, emergency responders, and goods movement” [2]. Similarly, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) states that Complete Streets are “designed for the safety and comfort of all road users, regardless of age and ability[3].

The literature emphasizes that Complete Streets are not defined by a single design prescription but rather the method of “completing” the streets responds to local needs and context (e.g. roadway type, topography, natural features, density of development, adjacent land use, and street connectivity) [4]. Additionally, it is emphasized that Complete Streets represent a fundamental shift in the auto-centric approach to the decision making process so that “all users are routinely considered during the planning, designing, building, and operating of all roadways” [5].

What are the Components of Complete Streets?

Although the design of Complete Streets depends greatly on local context, a variety of elements are frequently in the design process. The Philadelphia Complete Streets Design Handbook provides an extensive list of design elements categorized by seven street “components” [6]:

High-visibility brick crosswalks and ADA compliant curb ramps in Princeton, NJ address the pedestrian and intersection & crossing design elements of a Complete Street
    • pedestrian: defined as “the clear area located between the curb and the adjacent building frontage” [7]. Key Complete Streets design elements for this component include appropriate sidewalk widths and ADA accessible curb ramps
    • building and furnishing: refers to “street furniture, elements of buildings that intrude into the sidewalk, and commercial activities that occur on the sidewalk…” [8] and includes design elements such as bicycle parking, pedestrian-scale lighting, benches/street furniture, and street trees
    • bicycle:  addresses “bikeways and other facilitates within the public right-of-way…” [9] and includes design elements such as bicycle lanes (regular, buffered, contraflow, etc.), cycle tracks, share-use paths, shared lanes/sharrows, and bike route signs
    • curbside management: relates to “facilities between the cartway and the sidewalk” and includes design elements such as on-street car parking, on-street bicycle parking, loading zones, and transit shelters [10]
    • vehicle/cartway: describes the “portion of the public right-of-way that is intended primarily or exclusively for motor vehicle use…” [11] and includes design elements such as appropriately sized lane widths, speed humps/tables, raised medians, chicanes, and preferred/exclusive bus lanes
    • urban design: addresses “policies related to those aspects of urban form that affect Complete Streets” [12] such as driveways, utilities, and stormwater management
    • intersection & crossing:  includes treatments that “…facilitate safe movement of all modes at intersections” [13] including high-visibility crosswalks (striped, raised, etc.), curb extensions, pedestrian refuge islands, bike boxes, and a variety of signal treatments (e.g., pedestrian countdown clocks, HAWK/RRFB signals, bicycle signals, etc.) [14]

[1] National Complete Streets Coalition . “Complete Streets: Fundamentals.”
[2] New Jersey Department of Transportation. 2012. “Making Complete Streets a Reality: A Guide to Complete Streets Policy Development.” pg. 2
[3] American Association of Retired Persons. 2009. “Planning Complete Streets for an Aging America.” pg. viii.
[4] New Jersey Department of Transportation. 2012. “Making Complete Streets A Reality: Implementation and Design Workshop for County and Local Governments.” Slide 65.
[5] LaPlante, John N., Barbara McCann. 2011. “Complete Streets in the United States.” Transportation Research Board. pg. 6
[6] City of Philadelphia. 2012. “Philadelphia Complete Streets Design Handbook.” pg. 67
[7] ibid. 71
[8] ibid. 79
[9] ibid. 98
[10] ibid. 110
[11] ibid. 120
[12] ibid. 126
[13] ibid. 132
[14] Special thanks to Scott Fishberg for providing the above information

Benefits of Complete Streets

Complete Streets benefit entire communities by addressing the needs of all road users regardless of age, ability, or mode of transportation [1]. Among other benefits, Complete Streets address issues related to mobility and accessibility, community and economic development, safety, physical and environmental health, transportation cost, and equity.

Walkable Princeton, NJ

Complete Streets enhance mobility and accessibility by enhancing the quality and availability of the “connections between residences, schools, parks, public transportation, offices, and retail destinations [2]. This network encourages the development of livable, walkable communities that can “help revitalize a downtown, increase private investment, bolster property values, promote tourism, and support the development of good business climate[3]. A walkable community also improves overall quality of life by creating an environment where people are encourage to interact and develop a sense of community [4]. In fact, research indicates that “…people who live in walkable communities are more likely to be socially engaged and trusting than residents of less walkable neighborhoods…[and also report] being in better health and happier more often” [5].

Complete Streets improve safety by providing pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers with adequate facilities and by reducing travel speeds so that all users and modes can safely use the street together. A review of safety research by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) found that a variety of facilities commonly found in Complete Streets design (e.g., marked crosswalks, raised medians, pedestrian refuge islands, traffic control devices, careful bus stop placement, safe routes to school, traffic-calming measures, continuous sidewalks and walkways, etc.) can serve as efficient countermeasures to pedestrian crashes [6].  Bicyclists also benefit from Complete Streets due to slower traffic speeds and the provision of bicycle-friendly facilities, (e.g., bicycle lanes, tracks, sharrows, etc.). Numerous studies have found that roads with “on-road marked bike lanes…reduce injury rate, collision frequency or crash rates by about 50 percent compared to unmodified roadways” [7] Higher rates of non-motorized modes can also reduce overall congestion on the transportation network, which makes travel more efficient and safe for everyone [8].

Bridge Street in Lambertville, NJ

Compete Streets provide increased opportunities for active transport for all users- including children, elderly, and the disabled – and this can have a profound effect on physical health. Research have found that “43% of people with safe places to walk within 10-minutes of home met the recommended activity levels…[and that] among individuals without safe places to walk, just 27% were active enough” [9] Accordingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have endorsed Complete Streets policies as a strategy to prevent obesity [10]. Complete Streets also promote increased use of sustainable modes of transportation (e.g., walking, cycling, and transit), which are associated with environmental benefits related to greenhouse gas emissions, impervious coverage, stormwater runoff, and water quality [11].

Finally, Complete Streets lower transportation costs by providing individuals and families with options other than driving [12]. The National Coalition for Complete Streets notes that “when residents have the opportunity to walk, bike, or take transit, they have more control over their expenses by replacing car trips with these inexpensive options” [13]. Complete Streets therefore address equity concerns by ensuring that mobility and access are also addressed by designing facilities that are safe, accessible, and welcoming for all users, particularly for the elderly, the disabled, and children [14].

[1] National Complete Streets Coalition. “Complete Streets: Fundamentals.”
[2] National Complete Streets Coalition. “Benefits of Complete Streets.”
[3] Delaware Department of Transportation. 2011. “Complete Streets in Delaware: A Guide for Local Governments.” pg. 25
[4] New Jersey Department of Transportation. 2012. “Making Complete Streets a Reality: A Guide to Complete Streets Policy Development.” pg. 3
[5] ibid. 1.
[6] ibid. 3, pg. 21
[7] ibid.
[8] Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. 2012. “Complete Streets Toolkit: A Guide for Central Ohio Communities.” pg. 2-3
[9] ibid. 1.
[10] ibid.
[11] ibid. 4.
[12] ibid. 8.
[13] ibid. 1.
[14] Special thanks to Scott Fishberg for compiling the above information

What is a Complete Streets Policy?

A Complete Streets policy  “formalizes a community’s intent to plan, design, operate, and maintain streets that are safe for all users of all ages and abilities…[Additionally], policies direct decision-making to consistently fund, plan for, design, and construct community streets to accommodate all anticipated users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation users, motorists, and freight vehicles” [1]. NJDOT adds to this definition by noting that “the intent of [its] policy is not to retrofit the entire street network at once, but rather to implement Complete Streets as routine construction, reconstruction, and repaving projects are completed” [2]. Complete Streets policies are most often found in either a resolution or ordinance; [3] however, may also appear in a variety of forms including executive orders, department or board policies, plans, and design guidelines [4].

What are the Elements of a Complete Streets Policy?

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, an ideal Complete Streets policy contains the following ten elements:

Excerpt from NJDOT’s Complete Streets Policy
  1. A vision for how and why the community wants to complete its streets
  2. Specifies that “all users” includes pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit passengers of all age and ability, as well as automobile drivers and transit-vehicle operators
  3. Encourages street connectivity and aims to create a comprehensive, integrated, connected network for all modes
  4. Is adoptable by all relevant government agencies to cover all roads
  5. Applies to both new and retrofit projects, including design, planning, maintenance, and operations, for the entire right-of-way
  6. Makes any exceptions specific and sets a clear procedure that requires high-level approval of exceptions
  7. Directs the use of the latest and best design standards while recognizing the need for flexibility in balancing user needs
  8. Directs that Complete Streets solutions will complement the context of the community
  9. Establishes performance standards with measurable outcomes
  10. Includes specific next steps for implementing the policy [5]

NJDOT provides a list of six key elements that embody many of the same ideas:

  1. Purpose and Intent: describes the goals, vision, or desired outcome of the Complete Streets policy
  2. Definition of Users and Modes: depending on local context, this element may include groups beyond pedestrians and bicyclists (e.g., transit passengers, persons of all ages and abilities, freight and goods movement, emergency responders, farm vehicles, equestrians, etc.)
  3. Types of Improvements: indicates the type of projects that are covered by the policy (e.g., new construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, resurfacing, maintenance, operations, private development, public-private partnerships, etc.)
  4. Design Standards: stipulates that the latest national and local standards will be used and/or points to specific documents
  5. Exemptions: clearly defines the types of exemptions that may be granted (e.g., cost, equivalent facility, need, critical safety issue, environmental impact, context sensitivity, user restrictions, etc.) plus the process and individual/entity in charge of making such a decision
  6. Implementation Plan: provides guidance for putting the Complete Streets plan into effect [6]

Why Do We Need Complete Streets Policies?

Pedestrians, Bicyclists, and Motorists Sharing George Street in New Brunswick, NJ

We need Complete Streets policies since the alternative – incomplete streets designed only for the car – “limit transportation choices by making walkings, bicycling, and taking public transportation inconvenient, unattractive, and too often, dangerous” [7]. Adopting Complete Streets policies improve transportation options, access to opportunities, safety, physical health, environmental quality, and community and economic vitality. We need Complete Streets policies to ensure that all users of the roadway are routinely considered in transportation projects and provided with safe, convenient, affordable, and equitable transportation options. Without the adoption of a Complete Streets policy, there is no guarantee that current and future projects will be planned and designed for all users of the road [8].

[1] National Complete Streets Coalition. 2011. “Complete Streets Policy Analysis 2011.” pg. 9
[2] New Jersey Department of Transportation. 2012. “Making Complete Streets a Reality: A Guide to Complete Streets Policy Development.” pg. 8
[3] ibid
[4] ibid. 6
[5] American Planning Association. 2010. “Complete Streets: Best Policy and Implementation Practices.” pg. 24
[6] New Jersey Department of Transportation. 2012. “Making Complete Streets a Reality: A Guide to Complete Streets Policy Development.” pg. 6-10
[7] National Complete Streets Coalition. “What are Complete Streets.”
[8] Special thanks to Scott Fishberg for compiling the above information


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