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Complete Streets: 3 Critical Components for Success

By Beverly Davis, AICP

October 3, 2019


Is the transportation industry finally coming to terms with the fact that we can’t build ourselves out of congestion? Is induced demand curtailing expansion projects?

Or has society’s movement towards alternate modes of transportation and healthy lifestyles pushed transportation departments to look beyond designing primarily for vehicles?

Whatever the reason, Complete Streets policies are gaining momentum in recent years, as DOTs and other agencies seek more innovative solutions for moving people and connecting communities.

The growth has been exponential, according to the National Coalition for Complete Streets. In 2011, 140 jurisdictions had formally adopted Complete Streets policy. Today, 466 jurisdictions have formally adopted a policy.

Complete Streets concepts are more than simply paying lip service to the integration of alternate modes into street design. Incorporating Complete Streets concepts into the earliest stages of planning for a project provides viable, safe and accessible modal components. There is an increasing demand for integrated modal facilities, and Complete Streets elements answer that demand.

Complete Streets also supports the growing focus on healthy communities and active lifestyles, advocates for increased convenience for seniors, and has been proven to spur economic growth and development within communities.

As policies continue to gain recognition and popularity, there are a few critical components for integrating Complete Streets concepts:

1. Ensuring a policy is in place

If the transportation agency responsible for a new road facility has not adopted a Complete Streets policy, implementing or adopting such concepts can often be extremely difficult..

One example is dockless scooters, which have become all the rage in some urban areas in recent years. Travelers can simply scan a code, their driver’s license, and a credit card to unlock the vehicle, use it to travel to their destination, and then leave it for the next rider.

However, a new market is emerging from this trend: scooter injury lawyers. While the idea is great in theory, not all cities have been planned for scooters zipping around pedestrians on tight sidewalks. Nor is it safe for scooters to be tailing cars. Because the facilities weren’t planned for this, the scooters have been banned from many cities.

Having Complete Streets policies in place provide for the safety and interests of all users and are incorporated into the design of transportation facilities.

These policies should focus on mobility, providing connectivity and accessibility for all modes of movement. Policies have been widely adopted by local, regional and state jurisdictions, and the most recent federal transportation bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or the FAST Act, is the first federal transportation bill to include Complete Streets. The act requires the US DOT and FHWA to encourage the state and local adoption of Complete Streets policies and design standards; requires state DOTs to address accessibility for all users in the design and construction of roadways designated as part of the National Highway System; and requires the use of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)’s Urban Street Design Guide as a standard to be considered by USDOT in the development of design standards.  The provisions within the FAST Act for Complete Streets is indicative of the changing transportation landscape.

2. Context Sensitive Design

The Institute of Transportation Engineers notes context sensitive design as being “the result of developing transportation projects that serve all users and are compatible with the surroundings through which they pass—the community and environment.”

With that, context sensitive design goes hand-in-hand with Complete Streets and must be considered when planning such a project.

Successful context sensitive design in Complete Streets projects is the result of extensive planning and collaboration at the very start of a project. Planners and designers must consider the demand of the facility in which they are working. A suburban area with four lanes and high-speed traffic doesn’t have the same user demands as a dense, urban corridor.

RS&H takes a holistic approach to project development that relies heavily on community and stakeholder involvement to ensure we address and balance the demands of the users with the objectives of the project. The general public, stakeholders, property owners, chambers of commerce, as well as other economic development agencies are all asked to share their thoughts and needs so there can be a coordinated effort from the start to move forward with a project.

Creative methods for public involvement are often the most successful. When the community doesn’t have time to come to us at a public meeting, we must go to them. Setting up tables at Little League baseball fields and community festivals, or using digital tools such as email surveys, geofencing, and social media have all proved effective at gathering feedback from the public.

As transportation agencies have evolved from focusing foremost on how to move vehicles to focusing on the needs of the community, context sensitive design has become a crucial part to ensuring the facility supports movement, connectivity and economic growth.

The industry is evolving with the consideration of multiple modes of travel in an integrated design. DOTs are considering more and more innovative approaches to improve uncomfortable pedestrian experiences, including road diets and narrowing lanes in order to widen sidewalks.

3. Moving everyone – and everything – safely

Designing a facility that is safe for all users, regardless of their mode of transportation, should be inherent within Complete Streets projects.

Have you ever noticed a pedestrian crosswalk with no sidewalks connecting pedestrians to the intersection?  Or perhaps tried to take a bike ride that was all too stressful?

Complete Streets projects must address such issues, always within the context of the facility. Safety for all users cannot be achieved without first considering each user’s needs and then implementing design elements that meet those users’ expectations and abilities. These elements may include implementing traffic calming to control speeds, connecting sidewalk networks, or addressing transit connectivity.

Visibility for pedestrians is key, as is addressing crosswalk safety with features like extended sidewalks and median refuge islands. Bicyclists also need to feel safe, which can be achieved by widening bike lanes or creating a barrier from traffic. Transit connections with bicycle and pedestrian facilities must be included.

However, motorists are the largest element of the traveling public and they also have safety needs to be addressed. Cars need to move efficiently, coordinated with, and not competing against, other travel modes. Traffic signals and timing, and other operational elements are crucial in maintaining the flow of traffic.

Additionally, the inclusion of access management techniques can be a valuable tool. Incorporating access management elements, such as the inclusion of medians, shared parcel access, and turning movement controls improve the functionality of the roadway without adding capacity. These techniques lend themselves to the incorporation of bicycle and pedestrian facilities that are appropriately designed for the context of the facility and provide the balance for different travel modes.

Despite the push back that often accompanies many of these tactics, studies have shown time and again that effectively planned roadways – for all users – increase economic viability and property values within communities. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) emphasizes how planning well-conceived access and roadways not only helps maintain property values, but also helps the FHWA, DOTs, and other transportation agencies meet the goal of promoting safe and efficient transportation for all the general public.

Because planning, after all, is everything.

Learn more about our Transportation services here.

Topics: Insights, Transportation, Planning, Public Involvement

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About the Author

Beverly Davis serves as the Savannah Office Leader and Senior Planning Group Leader for the Mid-Atlantic region for RS&H’s Transportation-Infrastructure Practice.

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