Making streets complete

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Historically, America’s roads were designed with only one goal in mind: moving cars as quickly as possible. This can make travel difficult or dangerous for pedestrians, seniors, children, people with disabilities, bicyclists, and transit riders.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 4,400 pedestrians and 670 bicyclists died in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2011. Road-focused design also limits mobility and doesn’t fulfill the needs of growing numbers of people who are leaving their cars at home.

What’s the solution? Complete Streets, a process that makes sure our streets are designed with all kinds of users in mind—pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and drivers.

what is a complete street?

Complete Streets are roads that are safer and more accessible for all users—regardless of how they choose to travel. But they don’t all look the same. Each project is unique, designed to provide safer travel that aligns with specific community needs and context.

Complete Streets don’t all look the same. Communities across the country are implementing projects that improve safety, increase travel options, and meet specific neighborhood needs and context. Photos courtesy of the National Complete Streets Coalition.

Making a street complete isn’t a mandate for a bike lane on every single street, or sidewalks where they aren’t needed. While Complete Streets projects can include elements like bike lanes, special bus lanes, or increased crossing opportunities for pedestrians, the process gives communities the flexibility to create safer roads for everyone. An urban Complete Street will look very different from a rural one, but each will help get residents from Point A to Point B safely.

why do we need complete streets?

Many of America’s roadways are unsafe. Busy roads without sidewalks, intersections devoid of crosswalks, bridges that lack handicap access, and unsafe transit boarding areas make our communities more dangerous. Complete Streets make more ways of travel safer for more people—meaning fewer people are dependent on automobiles and more can feel comfortable walking to the store or biking to work.

The idea of Complete Streets also reflects America’s changing demographics. As the population ages, an increasing amount of people will need more options of how to get around when they can no longer drive. Complete Streets make walking and public transit a viable option. Additionally, many younger people are already choosing to drive less.

Streets that incorporate more than just cars are also economical. When budgets are tight, local communities need to make the most of every dollar. Complete Streets improve the efficiency and capacity of road projects because they transport more people—pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and drivers—in the same amount of space.

the benefits of complete streets

Communities with Complete Streets are safer, healthier, more equitable, and better for the environment. Complete Streets improve the safety of our communities and health of our families, and can reduce transportation costs by making it easier for people to walk, bike, or take transit.

Compared to investing in pavement for cars, Complete Streets are better for congestion, air quality, public health, and neighborhoods. They improve the economy, too. According to a study from the University of Massachusetts, bike and pedestrian investments often create more jobs than road-only projects.

Additionally, let’s not forget that transportation accounts for more than a quarter of all the carbon emitted in the United States, and the largest source of that number is cars and trucks. Complete Streets policies are an essential tool in providing transportation choices beyond the personal automobile.

Walking and bicycling for the shortest trips (less than one mile)—rather than taking a car—could reduce carbon emissions by 12 to 22 million tons per year in the United States. Replace the car with walking and biking for longer trips (between one and three miles) and the carbon savings add up to 9 to 23 million tons annually.

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