How the complete streets movement took hold

Note: This article is published in the November 2013 issue of Better! Cities & Towns.

No task is more important to the future sustainability, resilience, livability, and health of the US than “complete streets.” Barbara McCann, the founding director of the National Complete Streets Coalition and the author of this book, has made a remarkable policy impact in the last decade.

Since the phrase “complete streets” was coined — a stroke of genius by writer David Goldberg during a brainstorming session organized by McCann in 2003 — more than half the states and close to 500 local jurisdictions have adopted complete streets policies. The phrase is memorable and it encapsulates a public benefit — a street that anyone can use on foot, by bike, on transit, or in a car — that is difficult to contest regardless of political affiliation.

Unfortunately, as McCann demonstrates at length in this book, it is far easier to adopt a complete streets policy than implement it. Success stories, some of them in places that were already moving toward walkability prior to adopting complete streets policies (Portland, Oregon, New York City), are numerous. But too many states and jurisdictions have adopted legislation and made little or no progress. My state, New York, enacted a complete streets law in 2011. Except in New York City, where celebrated commissioner of transportation Janette Sadik-Khan has made remarkable improvements, I’ve yet to see much evidence of progress. The barriers to designing multimodal thoroughfares are just as strong as they ever were in most locations.

McCann describes the transportation planning and engineering culture that has formed over generations, bolstered by systems and guidelines and approved practices, and is remarkably resistant to change – even in the face of legislation. One strength of Completing Our Streets is dozens of stories and case studies of people making a difference and how they overcame enormous barriers to build streets that better serve people on foot, on bikes, in transit, and in cars. This book is chock full of “champions” of complete streets, all of whom deserve recognition.

Completing Our Streets is strong on strategy and communications. In the introduction, McCann describes the strategy that led to so many complete streets policies being adopted: 1) Reframe the conversation about transportation in a simple and powerful way; 2) Build a broad base of support for completing the streets; 3) Provide a clear path to follow in transitioning to a multimodal process. The complete streets movement has arguably been more successful at 1 and 2 than 3, but this clear statement has power.

Part of the implementation difficulty lies, ironically, in the fact that so many arguments can be made in favor of complete streets. They are safer, can save money in many circumstances, are more sustainable, contribute to healthy communities, spur economic development, may boost retail sales, and offer transportation choice. The list goes on. Advocates for complete streets tend to focus on broad societal goals like sustainability, walkability, livability, and economic development. These are great arguments when asking public officials to adopt complete streets policies, McCann explains. 

Appealing to professionals

These same officials, in the design and construction of actual projects, defer to the expertise of their transportation engineers and public works directors, who are not swayed by these broad arguments and operate under a different set of priorities. In order to influence the professionals that have power over the streets, McCann recommends three arguments: Safety, safety, and safety. The safety argument is made in relation to existing users. If citizens are walking and biking and taking transit on roads that are not safe for these uses, the transportation professionals are not doing their jobs. And that’s according to how they define their own jobs

There’s more: These professionals will still not implement complete streets if they feel that that money is not available. These professionals must be assured that complete streets will not break the budget; that they can be implemented cheaply, within the existing budget, and sometimes save money. Completing Our Streets is useful in this regard, especially in the case studies and research presented.

One particularly valuable section focuses on how maintenance programs can be employed to create complete streets. If the road is going to be entirely repaved, restriping and providing a bike lane adds little cost. This approach, which requires rapid-fire implementation a few steps ahead of the steamroller, is in accord with “lean urbanism” concepts developed by new urbanists and Tactical Urbanism. 

Wishy-washy on design

Completing Our Streets is wishy-washy on design. If you want strong general design concepts for complete streets, read Walkable City by Jeff Speck. In the preface, McCann warns that the book is “not the cutting-edge design manifesto that some would expect,” explaining that “I’ve found that those finely crafted visions are not of much immediate use in the communities that I see as my baseline: Atlanta and the small towns across Georgia and the suburban United States.” Yet many of her case studies were successful to the extent that they were very carefully designed — even those in suburbs like Montclair, New Jersey, and Lancaster, California. McCann says little about design in this book and what she does say is of little use.


A makeover of the main street in Montclair, New Jersey, yielded economic benefits. Source: Completing Our Streets

New urbanists get little credit in this book. They were responsible for the first national-scope, peer-reviewed design manual written by and for professional engineers — Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares. They’ve been fighting this battle, with many individual successes, for three decades. They have come up with the Transect, which McCann mentions briefly, which is very useful for design of complete streets. McCann describes a Sisyphean implementation process for complete streets. “While this web of internal policies, rules, standards, and guidelines can be overcome for a single project, it will keep catching future multimodal projects, forcing advocates to struggle toward a more inclusive outcome again and again.” That’s been the story of the New Urbanism, too: Rolling the boulder back up the hill endlessly. New urbanists and the complete streets advocates should get together more often, if for no other reason than to tell war stories. 

And they need each other. Complete streets are among the nation’s most important challenges, but design does matter. Although the overall trend is overwhelmingly positive, some complete streets don’t look good or function well. If there is one lesson from complete streets, it’s that design and function are bound together. And we need to know more than just how to make streets useful for all transportation modes. We also need to understand what makes streets great. That may be a tall order for engineers, but we’d all be better off if more of them took an interest in that topic. This would round out the professional education of transportation engineers — some of whom could advance their careers in a world favoring complete streets.

New urbanists — and public officials, and transportation professionals — need McCann and the complete streets movement. Not only because their policies aid in improving our nation’s public realm and transportation system, but also to learn from the communication skills, strategic thinking, and sheer coalition-building power of McCann and her colleagues. Read Completing Our Streets and find out how she does it.

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