The Best Complete Streets Policies

Three Policies Get Perfect Scores in Smart Growth America Report

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Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2017 9:00 am

As of the end of 2016, more than 1,000 jurisdictions in the United States have made formal commitments to streets that are safe and convenient for everyone — no matter their age, income, race, ethnicity, physical ability, or how they choose to travel — by passing a complete streets policy, according to a new report issued by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition.

More communities passed these policies in 2016 than ever before.

Communities adopted a total of 222 new complete streets policies that year. Nationwide, a total of 1,232 policies are now in place, in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, including 33 state governments, 77 regional planning organizations, and 955 individual municipalities.

These policies are the strongest ever passed. When the National Complete Streets Coalition first evaluated complete streets policies in 2006, the median score was 34 and by 2015 the median score had risen to 68.4. In 2016, the median score leapt to 80.8. Before 2012, no policy had scored higher than 90. And it wasn’t until 2015 that any policy scored a perfect 100. In 2016, 51 policies scored a 90 or higher, including 3 policies that scored a perfect 100. These gains are a testament to communities’ commitment to passing strong, impactful policies.

Specifically, 13 communities led the nation in creating and adopting comprehensive complete streets policies in 2016:

  • 1 Brockton, Mass. 100 points
  • 1 Missoula, Mont. 100 points
  • 1 Wenatchee, Wash. 100 points
  • 2 Hull, Mass. 98.4 points
  • 2 Mansfield, Mass. 98.4 points
  • 2 Sherborn, Mass. 98.4 points
  • 3 Bridgewater, Mass. 96.8 points
  • 3 Brookline, Mass. 96.8 points
  • 4 Chester, Mass. 96 points
  • 4 Muskogee, Okla. 96 points
  • 5 Ayer, Mass. 95.2 points
  • 5 Wales, Mass. 95.2 points
  • 5 Binghamton, N.Y. 95.2 points

By passing strong complete streets policies these communities are making a clear commitment to streets that are safe and convenient for everyone. And they do so at a time when our country desperately needs safer options for biking and walking.

As a nation we face an epidemic of obesity and its related illnesses. The U.S. Surgeon General has recommended making biking and walking a routine part of daily life to help address this health crisis, yet in too many communities streets are not built to safely accommodate these activities. Smart Growth America's recent report Dangerous by Design 2016 outlined the enduring problem of pedestrian fatalities in the United States, and highlighted the 46,149 people who were struck and killed by cars while walking between 2005 and 2014. Over that period Americans were seven times as likely to be killed as a pedestrian than by a natural disaster. During the same period, more than 7,000 people were killed while biking.

Dangerous by Design 2016 also showed that people of color and older adults are over-represented among pedestrian deaths, and that pedestrian risk is correlated with median household income as well as rates of uninsured individuals. That means people of color most likely face disproportionately unsafe conditions for walking, and low-income metro areas are predictably more dangerous than higher-income ones.

Because of this context, for the first time this year the study looked at the income and racial demographics of the communities included in its analysis. The data showed that communities passing or updating a complete streets policy in 2016 were, on average, slightly more white and more wealthy than the United States as a whole. The average racial makeup of these communities was 76.3 percent white, 10.3 percent black or African American, 0.8 percent American Indian, 5.3 percent Asian, 0.1 percent Pacific Islander, 4.1 percent other, and 3.1 percent two or more races. In all, 77 percent of localities that passed policies in 2016 had white populations greater than the national average of 73.6 percent. The median household income of communities who passed or updated a policy in 2016 was $59,347, about 10 percent above the national average of $53,889.

Taken together, it is clear that communities are consistently passing stronger and more effective complete streets policies, a significant accomplishment. It is also clear that the challenge now is to help communities of all income levels and ethnicities benefit from this progress equitably.

Toward that goal, the coalition is in the process of updating its policy scoring rubric to give more weight to equity considerations as well as implementation. It will make the new standards public later this year, and will begin using the updated rubric to analyze policies moving forward.

Complete streets is more than a checklist. It’s a frame of mind. A complete streets approach integrates the needs of people and place in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation networks. Complete streets redefines what a transportation network looks like, which goals a transportation agency is going to meet, and how a community prioritizes its transportation spending. It breaks down the traditional separation in planning for different modes of travel, and emphasizes context-sensitive, multimodal project planning, design, and implementation. In doing so, a complete streets approach can make streets safer and more convenient for everyone.

This growing interest in complete streets comes at a unique national moment. In the United States today, demand for real estate in walkable neighborhoods with diverse transportation choices is at a new high. San Francisco and New York are the most commonly cited examples, but it is a trend playing out in smaller cities, suburbs, and towns across the country. For perhaps the first time in 60 years, walkable urban places are gaining market share over their drivable suburban competition — and commanding significant price premiums in real estate.

Walkable neighborhoods’ price divide is creating a subsequent health divide. As real estate values in walkable neighborhoods climb, lower-income residents are being forced out to areas without these active transportation options. People’s health is suffering as a result: research has shown that people living in dense cities are thinner and have healthier hearts than people in sprawling subdivisions.

For all these reasons and more, communities want to make it safer and easier for people to bike, walk, wheelchair roll, and take transit as well as drive to where they need to go. A complete streets policy is one of the most important ways communities can do this. The good news is that hundreds of communities are using this approach.

This new report looks at some of the best. Click here to download it now.

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