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The Continuing Evolution of Complete Streets

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of ‘Complete Streets,’ we give you an exclusive look into the key trends and influencing factors that are shaping the future of this innovative movement!

Complete Streets began as a movement to incorporate bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure into capital projects, which were almost exclusively designed for automobiles. The term was offered up by a group of cycling and walking advocates wishing to replace the mundane designation of “routine accommodation” with something more engaging. December 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the term’s first official use.

In 2010, the American Planning Association published PAS Report 559, Complete Streets: Best Policy and Implementation Practices. Tapping into research and case studies, the authors Barbara McCann and Suzanne Rynne described best practices and lessons learned from communities that were implementing the first generation of Complete Streets programs.

Top image: CityofStPete/Flickr

In the 14 years since much has changed. Complete Streets are now an established element within transportation, community planning, and engineering programs. The U.S. Department of Transportation is playing a larger role in policy and funding, as evidenced in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

In many ways, however, not enough has changed, and some things have, in fact, gotten worse. Crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians have climbed precipitously, with higher injury rates in lower-income communities. Those same communities, however, continue to lack investment in quality mobility infrastructure. Stakeholder involvement continues to be a challenge for many reasons related to limited budgets, technical material, and reliance on meetings.

The 2010 APA report mentioned several nascent trends that are now drivers of change. Current trends and forces affecting our streets include topics spanning new mobility, street design, technology, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the interdisciplinary influences shaping street design, planners are in a unique position to lead processes that touch on stakeholder engagement, economic development, public health, mobility, sustainability, and — yes — infrastructure design.

Future Considerations

Key trends and influencing factors in shaping the Complete Streets of the future include the following:

  • Access. Once synonymous with handicap access, the term has expanded to now include “access to destinations.” Transportation is not only concerned with how people move but also where and why. Complete Streets have little utility when they don’t connect people to the places they need to go. This is where planners have an important role in identifying land uses and economic development options for increasing access to common destinations.
  • Climate change. In 2020, transportation was the leading contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (27 percent) as well as CO2 emissions (33 percent). Because half of all trips in the U.S. are three miles or less, the combination of Complete Streets, micromobility, and thoughtful land use has the potential to substantially reduce auto trips and help bring emissions down.
  • Engagement. A shift from traditional public outreach and education to community engagement and involvement signifies a more active, two-way conversation between community members and local governments. Due to the complex nature of Complete Streets, planners will need to identify and understand the needs of a variety of stakeholder groups. Likewise, planners are gaining access to a growing collection of new modeling and visualization tools for communicating transportation alternatives.
  • Equity. Transportation inequity is both a historic and ongoing matter. In recent years, books such as The Color of Law and Inclusive Transportation, as well as scholarly work from Tamika ButlerCharles Brown, and Stephen Zavestoski, have framed the multiple dimensions of underinvestment, as well as the planner’s evolving role in addressing this issue.
  • Lessons from COVID-19. Repurposing streets during the global pandemic provided some of the strongest actions for economic recovery in the form of open streets and outdoor dining, as shown by recent research. As economies reopened, the demand for multiuse street space has endured. So, too, have the calls for equitable open streets, as the practice does not always benefit all populations equally.
  • Metrics. Measuring performance is now a hallmark of Complete Streets policies and plans. Moving forward, planners need to know not only how to set metrics but what to do when metrics are not met. Setting and monitoring metrics requires data collection and analytics, which are new line items in Complete Streets budgets.
  • Modes. The past decade has seen the rise of new travel modes and business models, such as micromobility, autonomous vehicles, and shared-use mobility. They will join traditional vehicles in competition for limited space within travelways. A transportation planner’s job is further complicated by a vehicle mix that travels at different speeds and performs different tasks with differing levels of rider protection. Since a Complete Street cannot always be complete for every mode, transportation planners are assessing Complete Networks that designate parallel and connecting routes.
  • Planning innovation. To fast-track local placemaking projects, localities have turned to tactical projects using low-cost, semi-permanent installations. This smaller, iterative approach has led to wider use of pilot projects and “Quick Build” installations, allowing communities to take a “try it before you buy it” approach to streetscape improvements. Planners can expect even more innovation and flexibility with anticipated updates to street design standards from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).
  • Safety. Even with more attention to safety, crashes and related causalities across all modes continue to rise, according to a 2022 report produced by the National Safety Council. The rise is attributed to speeding, distracted driving, and the popularity of larger and heavier vehicles. A 2021 AARP Livable Communities report found that conventional street design contributes to unsafe conditions and speeding by prioritizing expedient automobile throughput. Dispersed and separated land use, as well as street design, contributes to unsafe conditions. Cities around the country are adopting Vision Zero programs that aim to reduce injuries and fatalities to zero.
  • Technology. Technology now touches almost every aspect of a planner’s job. Digitalization has reduced the time to process documents, perform analytics, and facilitate decision-making. As noted above, technology is redefining the number and types of vehicles on our streets. While transportation planners will still develop forecast models, smart city technologies allow cities to monitor and manage traffic in real-time, thus making better use of existing roadways and parking.

Updated Report

These issues are just a snapshot of the ever-evolving factors that come into play when planning for Complete Streets. To help planners better make sense of these changes, a team from consulting firm WGI is working to update APA’s 2010 report. The new report will review what’s worked (and what hasn’t) over the last decade of Complete Streets planning and implementation and highlight new technologies, approaches, and emerging trends.

Streets are vital mobility infrastructure, yet their continued auto-centric focus and the annual toll of transportation-related injuries and fatalities show that we need to do better at making them safer and more inclusive. By understanding and applying both time-tested and innovative Complete Streets approaches, planners can help ensure their streets support more equitable, sustainable, and resilient communities.

Top image: CityofStPete/Flickr

About the Authors

Lisa Nisenson is vice president of New Mobility and Connected Communities at WGI; Roxann Read is a project manager at WGI; and Andrew Crozier, AICP, is a senior urban designer at WGI.

To access the original article, please click here.

Still Have Questions? Don’t Sweat It!

We encourage you to Contact Our Team of experienced Complete Streets experts today to discuss how we can help you transform your community with the use of Complete Streets – Or, download our FREE whitepaper, “The Future of Complete Streets is Here,” to to learn more about this innovative movement that’s reshaping communities around the nation!

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