What are Complete Streets and why should we build them?

Complete streets are designed and operate to enable safe and convenient access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities are able to safely move along and across a complete street.

Since each complete street is unique, it is impossible to give a single description. Ingredients that typically are found on a complete street include sidewalks, bicycle lanes, plenty of crosswalks, wide shoulders, medians, bus pullouts, special bus lanes, raised crosswalks, audible pedestrian signals, sidewalk bulb-outs, and more. A complete street in a rural area will look quite different from a complete street in a highly urban area. However, both are designed to balance safety and convenience for everyone using the road.

People frequently bicycle or walk on incomplete streets. Our states, cities, counties, and towns have built many miles of streets and roads that are intended to be safe and comfortable only for travel by motor vehicle. These roadways often lack sidewalks or crosswalks, have lanes too narrow to share with bicyclists, and make inadequate accommodation for transit riders and no proper facilities for people with disabilities. A recent federal survey found that about one-quarter of walking trips take place on roads without sidewalks or shoulders, and bicycle lanes are available for only about five percent of bicycle trips. Another national survey of pedestrians and bicyclists found that the top complaints were the lack of sidewalks and bikeways -- essentially, incomplete streets.

Few laws require states to build roads as complete transportation corridors. In 2000 the U.S. Department of Transportation advised states receiving federal funds that "bicycling and walking facilities will be incorporated into all transportation projects unless exceptional circumstances exist." By their own admission, fewer than half the states follow this federal guidance. Many highway improvements add automobile capacity and increase vehicle speeds, but do nothing to mitigate the negative impact this usually has on bicycling and walking.

Streets without safe places to walk and bicycle put people at risk. While nine percent of all trips are made by foot or bicycle, more than 13 percent of all traffic fatalities are bicyclists or pedestrians. More than 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclists die each year on U.S. roads. The most dangerous places to walk and bicycle are sprawling communities with streets built without facilities for bicycling and walking.

Roads without safe access for non-drivers become barriers. About one-third of Americans do not drive, making complete streets essential for children and older Americans, as well as people who use wheelchairs, have impaired vision, or simply cannot afford a car.

For a list of states and cities with complete streets policies, visit http://www.completestreets.org/.