Creating a comprehensive Complete Streets policy

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Across the country, states, cities, and towns are instituting Complete Streets policies to make our communities safer. What are the steps to achieving and integrating a successful Complete Streets policy?

The power of the term Complete Streets is that it fundamentally redefines what a street is intended to do and how a community will spend its transportation money. It breaks down the traditional separation of how people travel, and instead focuses on the desired outcome of a transportation system that supports the safe use of all of the ways we travel.

Think of a successful Complete Streets initiative not as a product, but as an ongoing process.

achieving complete streets

If you want Complete Streets in your community, you must first pass an ordinance. Paramount is that the ordinance set a vision for why a community wants Complete Streets and specify that “all users” includes pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit passengers of all ages and abilities, as well as trucks, buses, and automobiles.

An ordinance should not delve into the design particulars—like roundabouts or bike lanes—which can perpetuate the perception that multimodal improvements must be funded separately from so-called mainstream transportation programs.

closing the gap between policy and practice

The National Complete Streets Coalition has identified five activities that will reorient a transportation agency’s work to fully and consistently consider the safety of all users.

1. Planning for implementation

Successful Complete Streets implementation should strengthen relationships between public agencies, elected officials, citizens, and transportation professionals. This could occur through a formal workshop or an advisory board but all departments that “touch” transportation should be involved.

2. Changing procedure and process

In many communities, Complete Streets implementation is delayed or derailed by silos within and between agencies. Agencies will need to review the rules, procedures, and habits that have typically guided them. Facilities for bicycling, walking, and public transportation are often absent in existing plans, codes, and manuals.

3. Training and education

A successful Complete Streets initiative requires ongoing education and training. Planners, engineers, consultants, and other agencies need to understand new procedures. Elected officials need ongoing engagement to understand how policy goals translate into projects on the ground. And communication with the public about what they want out of their streets—and what is happening to their roads—is essential.

4. Reviewing and updating design guidance

In many agencies, a street design manual is the go-to reference for all transportation projects. If it’s not supportive of flexible, context-sensitive, and multimodal approaches, it can be the largest barrier a community faces. A flexible manual can empower planners and engineers to develop design solutions that balance the needs of all users.

5. Measuring performance

Creating and using new performance measures will make sure agencies are on the right track and can be used to help demonstrate the value of future projects.

Traditionally, the default measurement tool for transportation projects is something called the Level of Service (LOS). This provides an excellent assessment of how fast cars can drive on the streets, but ignores all other users. Different measures are needed to judge the effects of Complete Streets, such as

  • onstreet bicycle routes created,
  • new linear feet of pedestrian accommodation,
  • changes in the number of people using public transportation, bicycling, or walking, or
  • number of new street trees.

ALEXANDRIA, MINNESOTA: perfect opportunity

Historic downtown Alexandria, Minnesota is like a lot of other small cities and towns in greater Minnesota: the main street that runs through the heart of the community is also a state highway. But in Alexandria, the Central Lakes Trail runs a few blocks away from downtown, drawing 150,000 hikers and bicyclists to the area each year. While many small towns envy this “problem,” it’s a challenge in Alexandria because there’s no easy way for bicyclists to get from the trail to downtown businesses.

In the summer of 2010, the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced its plan to repave Broadway. Wisely, Alexandria city leaders recognized an opportunity. Earlier that year, the Minnesota Legislature passed the state Complete Streets law; the opportunity to incorporate it in downtown Alexandria came at the perfect time.

City officials decided on a design that maintained existing traffic lanes but narrowed them enough to allow more room for bicycles and pedestrians. Additionally, better sidewalks, trees, and plantings will make the street more attractive for pedestrians.

In September 2010, just four months after the state Complete Streets law passed and city officials pursued the project, an enthusiastic city council approved the plan. The project will be completed in the summer of 2014.

redmond, washington: changing the grade

Located 16 miles to the east of Seattle, Redmond is not unlike many auto-oriented suburban communities that want to become more walkable and bikeable. To that end, Redmond passed a Complete Streets ordinance in 2007.

But when Complete Streets practices—narrower streets and bike lanes—were proposed, traditional traffic models came out with the traditional result: car traffic may be slowed. The model said nothing about the needs of disabled people, bicyclists, or people on transit.

After realizing that the Complete Streets concept was always going to get a failing grade with an out-of-date measurement, the city changed the report card. Instead of looking solely at vehicle-based traffic times, it developed a travel standard that that grades service time for public transportation, reduction in pedestrian and bicycle accidents, and completion of the bicycle network.

fresh energy’s role

Fresh Energy helped pass the nation’s top-rated state Complete Streets policy in 2010 and has been involved in the passage of several local Complete Streets policies. Additionally, Fresh Energy coordinates the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition and provides support to communities around Minnesota who want to make their streets friendlier for walking and biking.

Since the state policy passed in 2010, we’ve partnered with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to see its elements implemented. This includes detailed changes to road standards, funding criteria, road planning processes, and engineer training. Our work is helping to support a change among agencies, planners, and engineers to think about more than just moving cars quickly.

Going forward in 2014 and beyond, Fresh Energy will continue to support policies that make it easier to bike, walk, and take transit safely.

Photo (top right) courtesy of Alex Road Report (
Photo (bottom right): Stefanie Seskin ( | CC BY-NC 2.0

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