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Complete Streets provide all the elements of multi-modal transportation

Leveraging on-street and off-street facilities, greenways, trails, sidewalks and roadways to connect our communities.

Presented at the American Trails 19th National Trails Symposium, November 2008

By Philip Pugliese, City of Chattanooga

photo of street with walkway

Every mode needs: Convenience, Safety, Comfort, Access, and Reasonable travel time

Complete streets are about creating a true multi-modal transportation network. Complete Streets are designed and operated so they are safe, comfortable, and convenient for all users— pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.

Many of our streets are overbuilt and now impossible to cross safely. They are dangerous for children and elderly especially. Our streets are not complete and most lack the fundamental elements to provide multi-modal transportation.

Streets without safe places to walk, bicycle, and catch a bus put people at risk. Close to 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists die each year on U.S. roads, and more than 70,000 are injured. Over 40 percent of these pedestrian fatalities occur on roads that have no crosswalks. In fact, pedestrian crashes are more than twice as likely in places without sidewalks; streets with sidewalks on both sides are the least hazardous. While the absolute numbers of bicyclists and pedestrians killed has been in decline, experts attribute this in part to a decline in the number of people bicycling and walking. The Surface Transportation Policy Project found that pedestrian safety declined during the 1990s, and many metropolitan areas became significantly more dangerous for pedestrians.

Photo of narrow street with trees

Even attractive streets may not be usable by pedestrians

A new poll by AARP finds that while many Americans ages 50+ are trying to move away from car transportation as a result of high gas prices, their attempt to go “green” is challenged by inadequate sidewalks and bike lanes, as well as insufficient public transportation options. “More Americans age 50+ are trying to leave their cars behind but face obstacles as soon as they walk out the door, climb on their bikes or head for the bus,” said Elinor Ginzler, AARP Senior Vice President for Livable Communities.

Universal Access to Mobility

Questions associated with mobility and transportation choice are not limited to issues of economic efficiency. We must also acknowledge that for many Americans driving is not an option. More than 60 million Americans are not allowed to drive because they are too young. Another 30 million adults are not licensed to drive for a variety of reasons including economics, age, disability and choice. Eight million Americans above the age of 60 do not have a driver’s license, and many more licensed drivers choose not to drive. A surprising number of families, especially in urban areas, do not have access to an automobile. In Washington, D.C., 37 percent of households do not own an automobile.

A community with a complete streets policy considers the needs of older residents every time a transportation investment decision is made. Proven methods to create complete streets for aging pedestrians include retiming signals to account for slower walking speed, constructing median refuges or sidewalk bulb-outs to shorten crossing distances, and installing curb ramps, sidewalk seating and bus shelters with seating. Improved lighting, signage and pavement markings are among the measures that can benefit drivers of any age, but particularly older drivers. By 2025, US Census estimates that the number of Americans over 65 will increase from 12% of the population to nearly 20%, totaling 62 million Americans. More than 50% of older Americans who do not drive stay home on a given day because they lack transportation options.

Access to mobility is crucial to thrive economically, socially and physically. The transportation needs of these large segments of the American population need to be met with a mix of bicycling, walking and public transportation options. Transportation in America must be accessible for all Americans. Bicycling and walking are crucial in providing universal mobility.

photo of street with trees and trail


All travelers seek a similar experience: Convenience, safety, comfort, access to destinations, reasonable travel time, not necessarily about speed. How do we get there? A complete streets policy ensures that the entire right of way is planned, designed & operated to provide safe access for all users.

As these policies are developed, it is important to note that while improvements are made one street at a time, a complete streets policy is about creating a multi-modal transportation network.

Speeds are reduced to be more compatible with pedestrians and bicyclists. This is done by a combination of techniques, included among those listed below.

  • Sidewalks
  • Bicycle lanes
  • Wide shoulders
  • Plenty of well designed and well placed crosswalks
  • Crossing islands in appropriate midblock locations when block lengths are long medians • Bus pullouts or special bus lanes
  • Raised crosswalks
  • Audible pedestrian signals
  • Sidewalk bulb-outs
  • Street trees, planter strips and ground cover, which tend to lower speeds and define an edge to travel ways
  • Center medians with trees and ground cover
  • Reduction in numbers of driveways
  • On street parking and other visual speed reduction methods, when properly designed to accommodate bicycles

Implementing Complete Streets

1. Revised roadway policies and standards — These include such features as lane widths, design speeds, corner turning radii, the placement and design of crosswalks, incorporation of countdown timers, lead pedestrian intervals, bike lanes, and whether to add or leave street parking.

2. Revised decision process — All users should be consulted to help determine the appropriate design for a new or rebuilt roadway.

3. Staff training — Local traffic engineers and planners should receive training in best practices for accommodating all users. Most engineering schools provide no training on traffic calming, pedestrian, bicycle, or disability design.

4. Data collection— Data on all users, not just vehicles, should be collected before and after a street retrofit. Consideration should be given to adopting multimodal performance standards, known as Level of Service standards, to track how well each user group is being served. Typically, Level of Service is only measured for vehicles, during the most congested hours of the day.

1) Help Avoid Costly Retrofits

“By fully considering the needs of all non-motorized travelers (pedestrians, bicyclists, and persons with disabilities) early in the life of a project, the costs associated with including facilities for these travelers are minimized.” —Jeff Morales, former Executive Director of Caltrans

Lawmakers who passed the Complete Streets law in Illinois in 2007 heard about a bridge near Cary, Illinois, that was built in the early 1990s without any safe way to cross it via foot or bicycle. After several deaths and a successful wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the parents of a teenager killed on the bridge, the state DOT was forced to go back at a great expense (total cost $882,000) to retrofit the existing bridge with a side path. It would have been far less expensive to construct the bridge correctly initially. — figures via Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning

2) Require Minimal to Zero Additional Funding

“Generally, when a project has been scoped properly, as integral to a balanced and fiscally sound transportation system… complete streets facilities should not be treated as additional costs to a project.” —Gregg Albright, Deputy Director of Planning and Modal Programs, Caltrans

The Florida DOT estimated that complete street features (bicycle/pedestrian accommodations) may add between 2.5 to 5 percent of a project’s cost.[i] Based on this conservatively high estimate, Ed Barsotti of the League of Illinois Bicyclists calculated that the implementation of the State of Illinois’s complete streets policy would cost $12.4M to $24.8M over a period of 6 years for the bicycle and pedestrian elements not already included. This represents just 0.2 to 0.4 percent of Illinois DOT’s FY05-11 Proposed Highway Improvement Program budget. This calculation does not account for any savings from complete streets that are achieved by avoiding retrofits or better design.

3) Save Money with Better Design

In De Pere, Wisconsin, the Brown County Highway Department saved money by building a narrower arterial street with roundabouts and bicycle facilities. In place of the initially planned four-lane street with traffic signals at two intersections, the county changed the design to a three-lane arterial street with two roundabouts and wide curb lanes for bicyclists. These changes saved the county “$347,515 (16.5 percent) below the original project estimate.” Such "road diets" often move traffic more effectively with fewer crashes than traditional four-lane roads.

Complete streets make active living easy

Complete streets provide opportunities for increased physical activity by incorporating features that promote regular walking, cycling and transit use into just about every street. A report prepared by the National Conference of State Legislators found that the most effective policy avenue for encouraging bicycling and walking is incorporating sidewalks and bike lanes into community design— essentially, creating complete streets. The continuous network of safe sidewalks and bikeways provided by a complete streets policy is important for encouraging active travel. A recent comprehensive assessment by public health researchers of actions to encourage more physical activity recommended building more sidewalks, improving transit service, and shifting highway funds to create bike lanes.

Easy access to transit can also contribute to healthy physical activity. Nearly one third of transit users meet the Surgeon General’s recommendations for minimum daily exercise through their daily travels. A community with a complete streets policy ensures streets are designed and altered to make it easy for people to get physical activity as part of their daily routine, helping them stay trim, avoid heart disease, and receive the many other benefits of physical activity. DuPage County, Illinois adopted its complete streets policy as a health measure, calling it their “Healthy Streets Initiative.”

Complete Streets are good for air quality. Air quality in our urban areas is poor and linked to increases in asthma and other illnesses. Yet if each resident of an American community of 100,000 replaced one car trip with one bike trip just once a month, it would cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 3,764 tons of per year in the community. Complete streets allow this to happen more easily.

Complete Streets are essential in order to make it possible for Americans to drive less and use our streets to get around more easily on foot, bike, and public transit. The potential to shift trips to lower-carbon modes is undeniable: The 2001 National Household Transportation Survey finds that 50% of all trips in metropolitan areas are three miles or less and 28% of all metropolitan trips are one mile or less— distances easily traversed by foot or bicycle. Yet 65 percent of trips under one mile are now made by automobile, in part because of incomplete streets that make it dangerous or unpleasant to walk, bicycle, or take transit. Complete streets would help convert many of these short automobile trips to multi-modal travel. Other studies have calculated that 5-10% of urban automobile trips can reasonably be shifted to non-motorized transport.

Places that are giving people options are seeing a reduction in their emissions. Boulder, Colorado is working to create a complete street network, with over 350 miles of dedicated bike facilities, paved shoulders and a comprehensive transit network. Between 1990 and 2003, fewer people in the city drove alone, more people bicycled, and transit trips grew by a staggering 500 percent. The reduction in car trips has cut annual CO2 emissions by half a million pounds.

Complete streets make fiscal sense. Integrating sidewalks, bike lanes, transit amenities, and safe crossings into the initial design of a project spares the expense of retrofits later. Jeff Morales, the Director of Caltrans when the state of California adopted its complete streets policy in 2001, said, "By fully considering the needs of all non-motorized travelers (pedestrians, bicyclists, and persons with disabilities) early in the life of a project, the costs associated with including facilities for these travelers are minimized.” A balanced transportation system that includes complete streets can bolster economic growth and stability by providing accessible and efficient connections between residences, schools, parks, public transportation, offices, and retail destinations. Complete streets can reduce transportation costs and travel time while increasing property values and job growth.

Complete streets create viable, livable communities

Creating infrastructure for non-motorized transportation and lowering automobile speeds by changing road conditions can improve economic conditions for both business owners and residents. When Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District slimmed its traffic lanes to slow down cars and accommodate other users, merchants reported the street changes enhanced the area. Nearly 40 percent of merchants reported increased sales, and 60 percent reported more area residents shopping locally due to reduced travel time and convenience. Overall, two-thirds of respondents described the increased levels of pedestrian and bicycling activity and other street changes improved business and sales.[i] A network of complete streets is more safe and appealing to residents and visitors, which is also good for retail and commercial development.

Street design that is inclusive of all modes of transportation, where appropriate, not only improves conditions for existing businesses, but also is a proven method for revitalizing an area and attracting new development. Washington, DC’s Barracks Row was experiencing a steady decline of commercial activity due to uninviting sidewalks, lack of streetlights, and speeding traffic. After many design improvements, which included new patterned sidewalks, more efficient public parking, and new traffic signals, Barrack’s Row attracted 44 new businesses and 200 new jobs. Economic activity on this three-quarter mile strip (measured by sales, employees, and number of pedestrians) has more than tripled since the inception of the project.

Complete streets also boost the economy by increasing property values, including residential properties, as generally homeowners are willing to pay more to live in walkable communities. In Chicago, homes within a half-mile of a suburban rail station on average sell for $36,000 more than houses located further away. Similarly in Dallas, the new public transportation rail line helped spur retail sales in downtown Dallas, which experienced sales growth of 33 percent, while the sales in the rest of the city grew 3 percent.

Philip Pugliese was appointed as Chattanooga’s first bicycle coordinator in September, 2005. Actively engaged in bicycle advocacy, he has served as chair of the Chattanooga Bicycle Task Force and is on the staff of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County-North Georgia Transportation Planning Organization and the Southeast Tennessee Rural Planning Organization. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals and represents this organization to the National Complete Streets Coalition.


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