Chances are good that your city is planning to resurface one of its major streets some time soon.
Chances are less good, however, that city leaders recognize this—and other projects like it—as an opportunity to support local businesses; or to help residents lead healthier lives, help low-income families get to work, help older adults get around independently, and give everyone more choices about how they get where they need to go.
Communities’ streets can do all these things—with the right approach. We call this complete streets, and it’s an approach that helps transportation planners and engineers routinely design and operate the entire right-of-way to enable safe access for all users, regardless of age, ability or how they chose to travel. There is no singular prescription for complete streets; each project is unique and responds to its community context. A complete streets approach in a rural area will look quite different from a complete streets approach in a highly urban area, but both are designed to make streets safe and convenient for everyone.
Transportation professionals across the country are using this approach—from local planners to the nation’s top policymakers. Congress and the U.S. DOT have both taken action to help more communities use complete streets principles. New federal guidelines, eased restrictions and clarified directions to engineers are among the ways policymakers are working to make streets better for people walking, biking, and taking transit as well as driving.
In December, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, a brand new federal transportation bill that lays out funding priorities for the next five years. The $305 billion bill is the first time in over 10 years that Congress has outlined long-term funding for surface transportation.
The FAST Act is the first federal transportation bill to ever include complete streets provisions. Some of those new provisions are requirements. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation is asked to encourage and report on states’ adoption of road design standards that take into account the roadway’s most vulnerable users, such as people bicycling and walking. The law also requires state transportation departments to consider access of all users and modes of transportation when designing and building National Highway System (NHS) roadways.
Other provisions in the act grant transportation engineers more flexibility than they have previously had. The law adds the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)’s Urban Streets Design Guide to the list of acceptable design manuals for federally funded projects. And it gives local governments permission to use their own adopted design guides when receiving direct federal funds for a project—even if they differ from state standards that may not promote multimodal street design. Together these changes give transportation professionals more leeway to design and build streets that will work best for their community.
In May, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) took its own action to improve federal regulations.
First, the agency released new, dramatically simplified street design guidelines. The new guidelines modify the standards local communities and states must adhere to when building or reconstructing certain roads, particularly those with speed limits under 50 mph. The agency removed 11 of 13 criteria because of their “minimal influence on the safety or operation of urban streets.”
The revised criteria reflect the fact that many streets with speeds below 50 mph—notably, streets that run through downtowns or other areas where people likely walk, bike, wheelchair roll, or take transit—need to be designed far differently than highways or arterials. These simplified criteria eliminate a significant barrier for communities interested in using a complete streets approach.
Soon after releasing its new design guidelines, FHWA clarified a longstanding misconception: The agency made clear that it has no required minimum level of service (LOS). LOS is intended to help make streets more efficient, but fails to recognize when a street is working well for a diversity of users and modes. Streets that more safely accommodate people bicycling, walking or taking transit as well as driving might have slower travel speeds for cars and thus a lower LOS—making the street perform “poorly” despite its clear benefit to people not driving.
By stating explicitly that “FHWA does not have regulations or policies that require specific minimum LOS values for projects on the NHS,” the agency made clear, once and for all, that traffic speeds should not be the only measure of success for transportation projects. “Agencies should set expectations for operational performance based on existing and projected traffic conditions, current and proposed land use, context, and agency transportation planning goals,” the memo concluded.
These changes at the federal level reflect a movement already underway among state and local leaders who are increasingly using a complete streets approach. As of July 2016, nearly 1,000 communities nationwide have complete streets policies in place—in small towns and big cities, and in rural, suburban and urban locations alike.
One example of this work in action is in Massachusetts. The state adopted a complete streets policy in 1996, and since then has worked to help municipalities in the state understand and use a complete streets approach. The state’s Project Development and Design Guide, Healthy Transportation Policy Directive and Engineering Directive, as well as its Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide are all designed to help municipalities consider, evaluate and design a complete streets network.
Today, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) runs a comprehensive complete streets funding program. Authorized in the state’s 2014 Transportation Bond Bill, the program offers incentives to municipalities that “adopt policies and practices that provide safe and accessible options for all travel modes.” Under the program, municipalities that participate in complete streets training, enact a policy that scores 80 or above out of a possible 100 points, and develop a complete streets prioritization plan are eligible for up to $50,000 in technical assistance and up to $400,000 in construction funding. As of April 2016, 70 cities and towns had registered for the funding program, with 44% of those municipalities serving populations at or below the median household income.
MassDOT efforts have already begun to bear fruit: More than 30 Massachusetts municipalities have complete streets policies in place, including 10 passed in 2015 alone. Many of these communities are at the national fore of complete streets policy development: Ashland, Framingham, Longmeadow, Lynn, Natick, Norwell and Weymouth’s policies were among the best in the country from 2015.
Statewide programs like MassDOT’s can encourage lots of municipalities to consider a complete streets approach. It’s up to the localities, however, to put those policies into practice.
Louisville, Ky., is one example of a community that is putting its money where its mouth is on complete streets. In April 2016, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer unveiled Move Louisville, the city’s new 20-year multimodal transportation plan. Move Louisville outlines “16 transformative projects that will help people travel to and from work, will increase safety, will provide more options for people to get around, and will keep Louisville economically competitive by building and maintaining an innovative transportation system.”
A complete streets approach is a huge part of this plan. Louisville published a complete streets manual in 2007 and has had a complete streets ordinance on the books since 2008, but the city has fallen short on delivering meaningful projects. Move Louisville is the first to admit the city’s shortcomings.
“The impact of the ordinance has not been robust,” the plan stated, “both because the Louisville Land Development Code was not updated to include complete streets requirements for private development and new innovations in bicycle facility design have occurred since the ordinance’s passage.”
Move Louisville aims to change this and to “make complete streets design principles the norm” for the city. The plan calls for a formal complete streets implementation strategy, updates to the city’s street design standards and the Louisville Development Code, as well as several complete streets projects throughout the city.
From city leaders’ perspective, this strategy is as much about improving life for people in Louisville as it is about supporting the region’s economy and protecting previous investments in the transportation network—what leaders refer to as a “$5 billion asset” for the city. A complete streets approach—which encourages designers and planners to consider how transportation projects can serve more people and achieve goals beyond travel—is one invaluable way to do that.
City staff collected public comments on the Move Louisville plan throughout the spring of 2016. The plan will be presented to Louisville’s Metro Council for final comments later in 2016.
Fresh set of eyes
Complete streets is a process, not a product. It’s a way to bring fresh eyes to every project and ask, “How can we make this better? What opportunities are we missing, and how can we change that?”
Ultimately it’s dedicated transportation professionals who want to make their communities better places to live and work and raise a family that are creating the kinds of projects described here. Complete streets is an approach any community can use, no matter how small and no matter their budget. Visit www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets to learn more.