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The best Complete Streets policies of 2014

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/10/15 @ 4:30pm

What matters most about complete streets is seeing how it affects change.

<br />A complete street in Austin, Texas which rose to the 2014 Top 10 national rankings.

The National Complete Streets Coalition, which is part of Smart Growth America, released its ranking of cities, states and regions that adopted complete streets in 2014.

Whether by law or somewhat weaker format, like resolutions, now more than 712 jurisdictions are moving with coordinated purpose in their design and construction of streets for people of all ages, abilities, and mode. That’s up from 31 places when they started tracking in 2005. It’s been little more than a decade since a heretofore opaque practice of traffic engineering was asked to stop favoring cars above all other modes such as biking, walking and riding transit.

The top ten from 2014 starts with the small towns of Ogdensburg, New York (pop. 11,000) and Acton, Massachusetts and moves to bigger cities like Austin, Texas and Chattanooga, Tennessee. The one-year jump in median scores from 51.3 to 62 bumped five cities in the class of 2014 into the all-time top ten. It reflects, perhaps, more traction for the Complete Streets scorecard, which counts points in ten categories, and resources on how to build an effective policy like their Complete Streets Local Policy Workbook.

The sheer number of complete streets policies reflects a national groundswell to bring more equity into transportation. The scorecard awards points for cities that recognize where streets are built and who uses them (Context Sensitivity). It notes:

“This includes a shift toward designing at the human scale for the needs and comfort of all people and travelers, in considering issues such as street design and width, desired operating speed, hierarchy of streets, mode balance, and connectivity.”

Also noteworthy is a special emphasis on Implementation. 71% of the top complete streets policies specify an implementation activity. 37% listed a specific person or committee to oversee its implementation.

It’s important to recognize that change on the ground may require a long time frame (longer than what Americans are used to), says the coalition.

“Make incremental improvements because it takes years if not decades to get to the 40 to 50% mode shift that we see in cities like Amsterdam,” Austin Complete Streets Manager, Katherine Gregor said during a national conference call.

Indeed, a well written complete streets policy can express the collective will of a place. But, “culture shift” is an up and down enterprise. The signal from the top—the states Department of Transportation and the regional transportation agencies (Ohio DOT is absent from the 30 states with Complete Streets policy; Dayton and Columbus rank in the top ten for regional transportation agencies) is essential to what the cities feel they can do. Where states like Michigan and New Jersey have strong complete streets policies, their metros take it as a signal that they have a willing partner. Where cities like Indianapolis (#1) have mayors who don’t leave a lot of grey area about their intention to transform their cities into vibrant places, complete streets have bolstered efforts that are already underway.

Sometimes it takes a strong statement in the Jurisdiction category to spell out that a city like Cleveland (#34) requires its road building parters like ODOT to work with them in building complete streets.

Complete Streets is but one tool for organizing thought into action. There is a growing body of technical support—including a modern design guide for urban bikeways from NACTO—that works in tandem with policy and earns points under Design.

The goal is to reset government to respond to rising demand for mobility choice. This report card is a high leverage moment that way. The places that are moving on complete streets started here with a clear set of intentions and are not letting dust settle on their plans.

* * * *

For cities that want to raise the volume on complete streets, the U.S. DOT is ready to engage them—through Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s Mayor’s Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets.

Barbara McCann, former director of the Complete Streets Coalition now with the U.S. Department of Transportation, noted on the conference call that Foxx sees bike and pedestrian safety as one of his priorities.

“They make up 17% of all traffic fatalities, and that’s unacceptable,” she said.

For the Mayor’s Challenge, USDOT will work with cities where traffic deaths are greatest to “ramp up their work. The best way we can help is to drive resources in form of technical assistance and peer learning—the mayor’s challenge allows cities to focus on this issue of bike and ped safety.”

They are actively recruiting for cities to join the 35 mayors who have signed up thus far.

The challenge is for mayors to:

  • Consider biking and walking equal in all transportation projects—to really think about it through an entire system
  • Identify and fix barriers to those (modes other than cars) trying to access streets
  • Collect data (those walking and biking and injured)
  • Integrate improvements into maintenance projects
  • Strengthen laws and ordinances
  • Integrate engineering and enforcement

DOT is working with the National Complete Streets Coalition to elevate the conversation and perhaps scale it up to the county level. The kick off to a year long set of activities will be on March 12, 2015.

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