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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