Thunderhead AllianceComplete Streets

Complete Streets, Continued

The current paradigm of road design and improvement is still deeply steeped in the effort to move as many cars as quickly as possible. Most road engineers were taught under the directive that wide, fast roads equate to satisfied users. For the majority of projects, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, or “routine accommodations” in transportation-wonk-speak were an afterthought – addressed only if there was enough money or space once the task of quickly moving cars was taken care of. In fact, the term “routine accommodations” within transportation circles specifically refers to bicycling and pedestrian facilities and improvements.

Additionally, the Federal transportation bill provides funding for states that follow Federal design guidance. Of course, states do not need to follow the guidance if they don’t want to take advantage of the funding provided by the Feds, but then they’re left with the job of raising those “lost” funds on their own. And for the most part, it’s easier to go with the program than to do things differently.

A direct result of the funding opportunities presented by the original transportation bill led to progressive state departments of transportation beginning to adopt language in their project design guidelines indicating that bicycling and pedestrian “should” (instead of “shall”) be routinely accommodated whenever possible. This language directed engineers to design their projects in a more comprehensive manner. But at the end of the day, this language is mere guidance instead of policy. So the question remained: how do we institutionalize routine accommodations as a required design policy instead of just design guidance?

Enter complete streets.

Several years ago transportation advocates and consultants began working to institutionalize routine accommodations as part of a coordinated effort to improve road safety and conditions for all users. During one meeting the term “complete streets” was coined and a national movement was born.

What’s In A Name?

As the name implies, no street is complete unless it is safe and accessible to even the most vulnerable of users. While this concept seems ludicrously simple, it can very easily get lost in the bureaucracy of departments of transportation.

The beauty of the name is that it is both inclusive of all users and conveys a positive message about usability of the road. This is the sort of language that makes politicians look like they’re kissing babies on the campaign trail. Who can argue with a complete street, whereas the request for an “accommodation” sounds like some sort of special set-aside. Special set-asides and accommodations require money. It is incredibly easy to build political will with complete streets.

And where there’s political will, there’s money.

A New American Dream

Part of the backlash to urban sprawl has seen the emergence of a new way of urban design and architecture - “new urbanism.” In many ways, new urbanism is simply a return to the pre-sprawl era where communities were designed with a balance of work and living spaces. These designs tend to reduce traffic congestion as they’re typically designed around urban cores that are walkable, bikable, and transit oriented.

But again, how does this become institutionalized?

Progress, My Dear Boy, Progress!

So… is this complete streets idea gaining any traction? You bet it is. Bicycling and walking groups all around the country have been working for years to change the ways that local and state agencies approach community and road design. And they’re making progress. A national coalition of bicycling and walking non-profit organizations called the Thunderhead Alliance is helping local and state bicycle and walking advocacy groups around the country get local complete streets policies in their areas. Their goal is to get state-level Department of Transportation complete street policies in all 50 states (they’ve got 13 as of this writing) and as many local policies as possible in preparation for a campaign to institutionalize complete streets at the Federal level as part of the Federal transpor-tation bill. Remember: states don’t have to follow Federal guidance, but they do have to follow Federal standards.

What YOU Can Do

Complete streets is a grass-roots effort taking place all around the country. Every local and state bicycling and walking non-profit organization that is undertaking a complete streets campaign could use your help. Everything from donating to the local campaign to writing letters of support for complete streets to local politicians and agencies. It doesn’t take much from you, and there is true strength in numbers.

Find your local and/or state bicycling and walking organization on the Thunderhead Alliance’s website. Can’t find a local organization? Try a simple web search. Still can’t find a local organization? Consider starting one of your own. The Thunderhead Alliance can help with that, too.


Bureaucrats love acronyms. For those of you (non-bureaucrats) who also love acronyms and love getting lost in the fine print:

ISTEA – the Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act, first passed in 1991; the original transportation bill.

TEA-21 – the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century; the first renewal of the transportation bill passed in 1998.

SAFETEA-LU – the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users’ the second renewal of the transportation bill passed in 2005. (This is a five-year bill renewing in 2009, as there was a period of extensions to the previous bill while details of the current bill were hammered out.)

TEA-4 – the working name of the next version of the transportation bill due to be passed in 2009.


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Complete Streets