Complete Streets Q&A: A discussion about inclusive transportation systems

June 25, 2020
Traffic & Transit recently had the chance to speak with Emiko Atherton, Vice President of Thriving Communities for Smart Growth America and Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

T&T: Tell me about some of the work you do with the National Complete Streets Coalition? Can you describe the mission and work of your program?

EA: The National Complete Streets Coalition is a coalition of organizations, companies, and governments throughout the country that is committed to building a just and accessible transportation system that works for all users. We were founded in 2005 by some of the original coalition members to influence federal policy and really have routine accommodations for all users built into federal transportation planning and funding. Since then, we’ve evolved into an organization that really works in three complementary areas: we do thought leadership, so we produce reports, blogs, give speeches. An example of that is our most well-known report is called “Dangerous By Design” that identifies the most dangerous places in the United States to walk; and we also aggregate that data by age and race and geographic location. We also do technical assistance, so we work directly with communities of all sizes—from small rural areas, to cities, counties, and states—to help them both adopt complete streets policies but also implement those policies. And we do all that in support of federal advocacy, and really pushing for strong transportation policy at the federal level.

T&T: Could you talk about why the complete streets approach is effective for communities, and is this approach appropriate for every community across the country?

EA: Great question. I love complete streets because it’s not a design prescription. It’s not about saying every street needs to have a protected bike lane, etc. But it’s about saying for 70+ years, we have prioritized the high speed, high volume movement of vehicles when designing our roads and streets. And that’s really designing for just one segment of the population and really the needs of one set of the population. And what this says is that you need to consider and accommodate all users when making those decisions because really there are multiple types of users that use the street. Within that, I think it’s also particularly important right now when you look at issues of race and equity. On top of everything, we really have the most disinvestment in communities of color and we’ve really had racialized policies and practices, such as the building of our highway system and redlining that created particularly unsafe areas for communities of color. Why I think it works for communities—and there’s actually over 1,500 complete streets policies in the country, and those are in every shape and size—is because it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. What it says is when you’re planning the system—those in transportation planning, budgeting, and design—think about all users in those trips and every time think about how you’re building a better system and better connected network. So what that means is that regardless of who you are, where you live, where your origin is or how you need or want to travel, you can get to where you’re going or where you need to be in a safe, reliable, comfortable, affordable way in a reasonable amount of time. And in lower population areas, that’s going to look very different. The context in which you’re building in requires and demands different types of streets. And so in rural communities that could be slow, shared streets. You’re often building a more protected, wider shoulder for bicyclists to connect to rural communities. Where in a more urbanized area, like where I live in Washington D.C., you do start to see more protected bike lanes, more the presence of larger, wider sidewalks, more accommodations for transit. But it’s really context sensitive.

T&T: Going back to how certain communities may have specific disadvantages, could you talk about how a complete streets approach might address those disadvantages that a particular community might face?

EA: How complete streets specifically addresses communities of disinvestment is that about a decade ago now, the Complete Streets Coalition created what we like to call the ideal elements of a complete streets policy. And these are the things we need in an agency or government body to have in their adopted policy to make sure they actually get complete streets in practice. And what we did is we revised that ideal policy about four years ago to really highlight two things: the first of which is implementation, setting up policies that aren’t just resolutions or policies on paper but really translate into actual implementation and practice. But we also prioritize equity within that. And so a real complete streets approach doesn’t just look at one street, but it looks at the system. And the ideal policy actually has DOTs or DPWs or legislative bodies appropriating budgets for transportation projects to look at the whole system and see where is multimodal access most needed and where is the most disinvestment taking place. Where are the places with the most incomplete streets? What communities have historically received the least amount of investment? And so it really gets to taking an approach saying not only are we going to do this, but we are going to start in the communities where we’ve invested in least and where the need is highest. And unfortunately that’s often with communities of color. 

T&T: Can you talk about how demographics might shape how a community might approach their complete streets policy?

EA: So we believe in a data-driven approach first. And it’s both quantitative and qualitative data. So first I’ll start with the quantitative, which is where are the crashes most happening and where is the disinvestment most happening. And our report “Dangerous By Design” shows that black and African-Americans, as well as Native Americans and indigenous populations, are actually the most overrepresented in pedestrian fatalities. Not only that, it shows that you are more likely to be struck and killed in a census tract with a lower median income than other census tracts with a higher median income. So what it shows is that if you are black or indigenous in the U.S. or if you are walking in a lower census tract, you are more likely to be struck and killed. And that absolutely holds true for older adults as well. You then go to the qualitative data; there’s a lot of the complete streets process and approach involving engaging the community and looking at community engagement and input—looking at where the need is, where the communities feel like they struggle to get around. And starting to get into the layered questions—most people are not going to first talk about transportation, they’re going to start talking about access to jobs. So starting to unpack the transportation system is a part of that and the built environment. There’s also been some data that show that lower income communities and communities of color have historically received the least amount of investment in things like sidewalks, bike lanes, street trees, safe crossings. With that said, I think there has to be a comprehensive approach to bringing resources to those communities and it needs to be co-led with the communities. But just to look at the safety data alone, it shows that we are disproportionately impacting some communities more than others. And that starts to inform the decisions.

T&T: What are some of the biggest challenges or obstacles that communities face when going through the process of adopting a complete streets model?

EA: A lot of times I think it’s challenging the status quo. So engineers are very used to doing things one way. But with that said, engineers have not been given the new tools and performance metrics to do something differently. So it’s working to really change that system, and that’s through things like training, education, and making them understand. Most engineers definitely resonate with the safety message, just showing them the data. So there’s a lot of pushback on that, but it’s also making sure they feel supported. I always think of this story of when we were working with the Florida DOT. When we were asking why engineers were not doing more multimodal design, we learned that one of the reasons was their design manual (the reference book they used to design the roads) didn’t allow for that. When they wanted to do something different, they had to ask for a variance or an exception—which put all their projects behind schedule. And they actually got in trouble during their annual review for having projects that were behind schedule even though they were trying to do more complete streets. So often it’s budget concerns that we hear, but we don’t really feel like that’s the case because it’s how you choose to spend the budget. And it’s political will—I think political will is a huge part of that. For politicians, I think it’s so engrained the lack of understanding that if there’s a safety issue, then the number one thing to do is make our cars safer instead of fully understanding that. So political will, budget, and challenging the status quo with engineers.

T&T: Tell me how a complete streets model accounts for public transportation and ride-sharing options?

EA: Although we have these ideal elements of a policy, we don’t have a model policy because we encourage communities to develop their own, using some of the framework. For many communities, a huge part of that creating a safe, reliable, affordable trip in a reasonable amount of time has to involve transit because with land use in this country, it’s not physically possible to bike or walk or scoot all the way to work. But transit is a huge part of that. So often it’s looking at how do you prioritize safe connections, safe first-and-last mile connections through walking or using wheels to transit stops. And I’d say, within complete streets, scooters or micro-mobility becomes part of that because really it’s starting to rethink that first-last mile, but also what it means to build protected facilities. I often get this question “Well where do the scooters belong? Do they belong on the sidewalks? In the streets? In bike lanes?” And the problem is the answer is not really anywhere because we haven’t prioritized and actually built enough space to accommodate slow speeds on our roadways. So it’s about saying maybe we don’t need a 5-ft bike lane, but we need a 15-ft protected slow speed lane where multiple types of slow speeds can operate. But transit is a huge part of that because complete streets are about complete, connected communities. And frankly, transit is at the center of all that. One of our original founding groups was the American Public Transportation Association, because they saw that. And one of the big challenges we see right now with COVID is as transit service has been reduced, people have to walk a lot longer and farther to transit stops. And often those trips are not safe.

T&T: What does it look like to advocate for complete and inclusive transportation systems on the federal level and then on the state and local level?

EA: On the federal level, it means engaging with federal transportation policy, which only happens every five years or so. And it happens to be right now. So we’ve really been advocating for the inclusion of complete streets, and to make sure that states and other agencies who use federal funding have to consider the needs of all users when they’re using federal dollars. Especially considering the needs of all taxpayers when you’re using taxpayer dollars. And so we advocate that. Currently we’re advocating for complete streets as part of the next federal reauthorization. We were happy to see complete and context-sensitive streets be included in the INVEST Act, which the House released last week. But there’s still a lot of work to do to strengthen that. We’re also advocating for better safety performance measures within the INVEST Act. So what that means is currently states do have to set motorized and non-motorized safety targets. But they aren’t required to set negative safety targets. So they can set safety targets that actually predict that they will kill more people than the year before, and there’s no penalty if that happens. So essentially it’s as if you walk into the classroom and say “I’m going to get a D”—and then saying “that’s okay,” and you’re still going to be able to graduate. And so we’re saying that’s not acceptable, particularly when transportation fatalities—unlike many things—don’t have a cure. We don’t know how to fix it. But the most maddening thing about transportation is that we know what to do. It isn’t rocket science. FHWA and the Transportation Research Board have published multiple papers on adopting many different principles in engineering designs that are proven to reduce fatalities, and yet we choose not to do anything about it. So we don’t need to wait for the cure to happen. Autonomous vehicles aren’t going to save everything. We know what to do. But we actually have to do it. And so that’s what we do on the federal level. And what we do on the local and state level is support local advocacy groups, cities, counties, or states that want to adopt a complete streets policy; so we really provide them the tools. But we don’t do any local advocacy because we want it to come from the community that wants it. So we give them the tools and the support, but we concentrate our efforts on the federal level.

T&T: Could you talk more about any of the positives you see with the INVEST Act or any concerns you have with the legislation?

EA: I think this is a huge time. I do believe that federal transportation policy reigns supreme in terms of setting the context, mood, and policy of the country. I encourage everyone, even if they don’t think about it all the time, to be engaged. Because really what we’re trying to do is set up a framework and funding and policy so that local jurisdictions and states find it is easier to do complete streets. This is a huge opportunity and it’s something I think people don’t think about a lot. But it dictates hundreds of billions of dollars every year. So we are hopeful that the next federal transportation bill will be the transformative policy we’ve been waiting decades for.

T&T: Could you tell me about some specific successful complete streets policies implemented across the country? Can you describe some features of a particular community’s model?

EA: So a couple of things come to mind. Minneapolis adopted a complete streets policy a few years ago that really ranked modal priority for pedestrians and started to really lay the groundwork for better transportation, bike, and pedestrian master plans. Not only did we see that start to get implemented, we actually saw Minneapolis use that as the backbone of when they started to have “open streets” during the COVID-19 response. Tucson, Arizona currently has in our ranking system the best complete streets policy on the books, and a lot of it involves continuing to educate and get the input of the community. And they’re actively doing that with their new department director. And so that’s been a really exciting thing to see. You then move to smaller communities like Cleveland Heights, Ohio that took a really long time making sure they had one of the best policies, but because they had so much stakeholder input; they’re actually starting to see that in their street network and how they spend their dollars.

T&T: Where do you hope to see things go from here in terms of broader implementation across the nation of this kind of model for transportation networks?

EA: I really hope we continue to see a push for accessibility; that this isn’t about providing places for recreation, but that transportation is about getting people to their jobs, to healthcare, to (a term we all now know) essential services, to schools. And that really we start to see a narrative shift in the role transportation plays in our lives. And so I think with that narrative shift is to have good federal policy that supports all that. And so hopefully what we see is the narrative that we tell ourselves about how we design our roadways starting to break down; it’s somewhat self-enforcing because how we built our transportation systems and really the land use in our communities requires that many people have to have cars to get to work. And so we start to see that shift in really building up transit—I think transit is a big part of the solution—but also shifting that narrative again about what it takes to get around and then building the supporting infrastructure to do that.

T&T: What are some ways transportation leaders across the country can support this movement towards complete streets?

EA: At the local level, it’s continuing to not just pass a policy, but to push for implementation. And then support both budgetarily and in leadership the change that needs to happen. The former director of the National Complete Streets Coalition—his name is Roger Millar and he’s the Secretary of Transportation for the Washington State DOT—he’s really doing that work, not just to have the policy, but to make sure his agency is getting the training, getting the new guidance, they’re hearing it from leadership, they’re getting the budgets they need to actually make that happen. I think from our elected officials, continuing to be bold and not to get waylaid by a few naysayers, often who are people just passing through the community. And with that said, for advocacy groups to be willing to support those elected leaders who are willing to put their political will behind projects. And at the federal level, for Congress to really support good transportation policy for governors, for legislatures. And then with all of this, to remember the role that race and equity play within all of this, and how the built environment and transportation is a huge factor in people’s lives. And remembering and starting to understand how much of the transportation and built environment was actually built with racist policies, and remembering that we need to undo those racist policies to get transformative change.

About The Author: Bruns is associate managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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