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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


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