Are Complete Streets Incomplete?

January 4, 2012 13 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Project for Public Spaces questions the effectiveness of Complete Streets policies and recommends additional guidelines to make implementing Complete Streets policies in communities more effective.

The “complete streets” movement has taken the United States by storm, and has even taken root in countries such as Canada and Australia. Few movements have done so much to influence needed policy change in the transportation world. As of today, almost 300 jurisdictions around the U.S. have adopted complete streets policies or have committed to do so. This is an amazing accomplishment that sets the stage for communities to reframe their future around people instead of cars.

But communities cannot stop there. Complete streets is largely an engineering policy that, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition website, “ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind — including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.”

Getting transportation professionals to think about including pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users is a key first step in creating great places and livable communities. But that is not enough to make places that truly work for people — “streets as places.” The planning process itself needs to be turned upside-down.

We at PPS like to say that engineers can ruin a good street, but they cannot create a good street — a street that is truly complete — through engineering alone. A small but growing group of communities have recognized that to really “complete their streets,” they need genuinely place-based and community-based transportation policies that go beyond routine accommodation.

Additional Rules To Implementing A Successful Complete Streets Project

1. Think of Streets as Public Spaces

Euclid Avenue - Cleveland, OH

Not so long ago, this idea was considered preposterous in many communities. “Public space” meant parks and little else. Transit stops were simply places to wait. Streets had been surrendered to traffic for so long that we forgot they could be public spaces. Now we are slowly getting away from this narrow perception of streets as conduits for cars and beginning to think of streets as places.

2. Plan for Community Outcomes

East 3rd Street - Long Beach, CA

Communities need to first envision what kinds of places and interactions they want to support, then plan a transportation system consistent with this collective community vision. Transportation is a means for accomplishing important goals — like economic productivity and social engagement — not an end in itself.

3. Design for Appropriate Speeds

London, England

Streets need to be designed in a way that induces traffic speeds appropriate for that particular context. Whereas freeways — which must not drive through the hearts of cities — should accommodate regional mobility, speeds on other roads need to reflect that these are places for people, not just conduits for cars. Desired speeds can be attained with a number of design tools, including changes in roadway widths and intersection design. Placemaking can also be a strategy for controlling speeds,. Minimal building setbacks, trees, and sidewalks with lots of activity can affect the speed at which motorists comfortably drive.

4. Moving Beyond Complete Streets to Build Communities

Chestnut Avenue - Baltimore, MD

Complete streets policies support these three rules. More importantly, they open the door for new ways of thinking about how the transportation profession should approach streets. But communities cannot get complacent and expect transportation planners to carry the whole load of creating great places. Instead, community leaders and advocates need to collaborate with the profession to tap their engineering skills to help build streets that are places.

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