Although the phrase Complete Streets often evokes images of a dense metropolis, it is important that this term is embraced by municipalities of all sizes and in all locations. It may be in urban neighborhoods that Complete Streets receive the most publicity, but it is not a singularly urban phenomenon. Complete Streets are about making our transportation network safe and accessible to all users, and rural towns can and should design streets which accomplish that goal.
The perception that rural towns cannot support Complete Streets is often erroneous, dismissing the central role of a community’s downtown and principal avenue. Many rural towns developed around a small main strip that contained all the local economic and commercial entities. Today these thoroughfares are often attractions themselves and can be made even more so by providing safe, attractive pedestrian and bicycle facilities. Passing a Complete Streets policy provides both a framework and some muscle to such goals, ensuring that the construction of these facilities are consistently applied. Additionally, for towns whose main streets are state roads, support is available from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, who actively support Complete Streets through funding and education efforts. Complete Streets policies should be context-sensitive. Each community is different; it would not make sense to mimic the design of a New York City avenue in Cumberland County’s Greenwich Township, population 804. Demographic, economic, cultural and geographic differences dictate that every Complete Streets policy be designed specifically for the community in mind. Ensuring proper pedestrian signage might be all that some communities need, while others might have to consider diverse issues ranging from accessible curb cuts to appropriate speed limits.
Complete Streets have myriad benefits for all communities. They induce economic activity, improve road safety and promote public health, among many benefits. These externalities are all unrelated to density, and communities of all sizes are constantly working towards realizing these goals. A recently released study by Smart Growth America emphasizes the economic benefits of Complete Streets. The authors examined 37 Complete Streets projects in 31 municipalities across 18 states, and the economic boon of these policies is startling. Over $18 million was saved in crash avoidance through safer street conditions alone. Rural communities, which generally require emergency services to travel much greater distances, would undoubtedly benefit from this crash-avoidance savings. Additionally, Complete Streets address holes in the transportation network, not only by encouraging alternative transportation modes, but by reducing congestion and increasing overall transportation network capacity.
Despite less than 20% of the US population living in rural areas, in 2010, rural fatalities accounted for 55% of all traffic deaths. In addition, rural areas had a fatality rate/100 million vehicle miles traveled that was 2.5 times higher than that of urban areas. Higher speeds, a greater diversity of large vehicles on the roads and the long distances from medical services all contribute to these numbers. Complete Streets, through actions such as lowering traffic speeds, increasing pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure and building medians, can greatly enhance the safety of rural streets and communities.
While Complete Streets in rural communities may seem like a new and untested idea, it is not unprecedented. Manistique, Michigan has just over 3,000 people, but passed a Complete Streets resolution in order to “support economic growth and community stability.” Tupelo, Mississippi passed Complete Streets legislation in order to improve public health. In New Mexico, the entire county of Doña Ana adopted a policy to promote multimodal travel. However, they made sure to craft it specifically for the New Mexican desert by incorporating mandates to include native plants.
In New Jersey, seven counties and over 100 municipalities have Complete Streets policies. Unfortunately, many of the most rural municipalities have not, as of yet, adopted a Complete Streets Policy. However, NJDOT is a supporter of Complete Streets, and adopted a state-wide policy in 2009, before any state municipality except one. Hopefully, with NJDOT’s statewide leadership, rural New Jersey municipalities will decide to continue the trend of New Jersey municipalities adopting Complete Streets policies.