A neighborhood main street in Brooklyn, New York, reconstructed with safety improvements for cyclists and pedestrians. (New York City Department of Transportation)

A neighborhood main street in Brooklyn, New York, reconstructed with safety improvements for cyclists and pedestrians. (New York City Department of Transportation)

Activists learn that piecemeal projects and individual efforts may not be enough. 

When incoming Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti made “great streets” the subject of his first executive directive, he caused quite a stir. Speaking at a ULI Los Angeles event on transit-oriented development and quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Garcetti outlined a plan he said would restore the “swagger” to up to 40 neighborhoods by turning their main thoroughfares into lively, pedestrian-friendly streets.

Paul Keller, principal of Mack Urban, a real estate investment and development company focused on West Coast cities, welcomes the opportunity to work with city officials on rethinking urban streets. He points to Seattle’s Green Streets program as a successful model. Through new urban-style development in the context of animated and flourishing streets, Los Angeles’s evolving Green Streets program “will have a profound impact on the number of people” who can enjoy urban living, he says.

Related: How Are Developers Responding to Increased Demand for Walking and Biking Facilities?

Yet, over the past 60 years Americans built not great streets, but roads designed for one thing—moving motor vehicles as quickly possible. For too many Americans, Keller says, streets and roads are “frightening, fast, dirty, and loud—the exact opposite of what we are looking for in urban living.” And he acknowledges the challenge: “We need to find a new balance between the transportation perspective that views local streets as little more than access ramps for highways, and the exciting, vibrant, and safe experience people seeking urban environments want.”

No one wants an unsafe, uninviting street. So why has this been so difficult to change? And in places where people have successfully initiated change, what are they doing differently?

The fault is not a lack of design know-how: enthusiastic urban designers and thoughtful transportation engineers have offered plenty of solutions. The fault is not even cost: solutions usually can be delivered within existing budgets.

The fault lies in a system of decision making that cannot see the forest for the trees—or, in more apt terms, the street for the transportation modes. In the United States, transportation policy typically has defined success in terms of using specific pots of funding, segregated by mode, to deliver projects. Highway departments built highways, even if the expanded road ran through a small town’s Main Street. Bicycle route planners tried to stretch their funds by piecing together networks from low-use roads. Transit agencies attempted to serve major job generators even if it meant dropping customers off on roads that lack sidewalks.

A San Diego street with crosswalk access to a bus shelter. (Alec Hamilton/Walk San Diego)

A San Diego street with crosswalk access to a bus shelter. (Alec Hamilton/Walk San Diego)

The solution, therefore, starts with policy. This was the conclusion of a group of activists who came together a little over ten years ago. Among them was Barbara McCann, author of the 2013 book Completing Our Streets: The Transition to Safe and Inclusive Transportation Networks, which examines the first decade of the movement to build “complete streets” in the United States. A founding member of the National Complete Streets Coalition, McCann describes the group’s attempts to apply the best thinking about how to make real change in transportation decision making, and the lessons learned so far.

The group soon realized that ongoing fights for one bike lane, arguments over sidewalks along one commercial strip, and endless meetings to apply traffic calming in one neighborhood—in other words, trying to take on the broad issue project by project—would just tire everyone out. Instead, realization that the problem was one of policy empowered the coalition to think big and to aspire, as McCann writes, “to change the way all roads are built in the United States.”

The next step in policy change is for advocates to be clear about what they want and to state it in a simple and powerful way. The advocates’ message: streets and roads should be safe for people of all ages and abilities regardless of whether they are walking, riding bicycles, taking transit, or driving. Streets that are safe for all users are “complete.”

Policy change requires coalition building. As the complete street advocates went about building their coalition, another policy truism came into play: agreement on means is much more important than agreement over ends.

To the table set by bicycle advocates came public health professionals seeking to reduce transportation-related deaths and injuries and beginning work on the link between walkable environments and health. Safety and health benefits also attracted AARP. Smart-growth advocates realized that complete streets could be an important tool to foster compact, mixed-use development, while the National Association of Realtors made the connection between safe streets and increasing property values. Across the country, boosters from small towns and big-city business improvement districts alike sought the promise of economic vitality. Indeed, ULI national Advisory Services panels and local technical assistance panels began regularly including complete streets in their lists of recommendations.

In 2003, fewer than a dozen governments in the United States had adopted policies focusing on the safety of all road users. In the movement’s first years, this number doubled, then tripled, and by 2010 momentum began to surge in small towns, suburbs, big cities, and at the state level, eventually growing to include 27 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. In August 2013, the National Complete Streets Coalition celebrated the Memphis, Tennessee, city government as the 500th to adopt a complete streets policy.

Houston joined the fold in October 2013. In presenting the policy to the city council, Mayor Annise D. Parker announced, “As we work to build a healthier community, it is more important than ever to reimagine our approach to streets, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, public transit, bike trails, and lanes.”

Parker also thanked Houston’s local coalition members for their “steadfast commitment,” but as McCann notes, Houston has only completed the first phase of the revolution by adopting a policy. For real change to take root, complete streets supporters need to make allies inside the transportation agencies. The day-to-day activities of transportation professionals create the decision-making systems and cultural practices that guide the design and construction of complete streets projects.

Houston developer Matthew Stovall, vice president of Crosspoint Properties, says he is glad the city has embraced the concept of complete streets. For developers interested in urban infill development, projects that face the street and encourage pedestrian traffic are crucial to fostering “safe and frequent interaction among local residents, retail patrons, and businesses,” he says.

Stovall sees opportunities in Houston’s downtown grid, such as in the city’s Midtown district, where today the streets “promote fast-moving traffic and [suffer from] a lack of crosswalks between stop lights along its major corridors,” he says. Stovall encourages advocates for complete streets to look at parking as part of implementing their policies. His developments include bicycle parking and use shared automobile parking strategies. Shared parking can minimize the space dedicated to parking and encourage pedestrian activity, providing more eyes on the streets for safety.

Although complete-street coalitions come together for many reasons, McCann warns that when it comes to making lasting changes in the right-of-way, advocates—including the development community—will see the best results by focusing on just two things—safety and all users. Safety is not just a side issue. According to the World Health Organization, 1.24 million people die on roads worldwide each year; nearly half the victims are vulnerable users, such as pedestrians and bicyclists. Moreover, policy matters. Over the past five years, while 88 countries decreased their road deaths, 87 countries saw an increase. In the United States, although traffic deaths overall have declined, pedestrian deaths increased 15 percent between 2009 and 2012. Safety is also a big part of what makes a street lively and attractive.

A typical street before improvements designed to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety. (NACTO)

A typical street before improvements designed to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety. (NACTO)

McCann expresses hope that planners and developers will also think big when it comes to land use and not limit their advocacy “to the already near-perfect places like transit-oriented development or walkable downtowns.” Safety is as much—if not more—of a suburban issue as it is an urban one. “The beauty of focusing on safety is that transportation professionals already want to make streets safe,” she says. “The bonus for developers is that complete streets will be there waiting when they come in with adaptive reuse or compact development proposals.”

Once safety for all users is built into transportation agency systems and practices, every project can become a complete streets project, from major new roads to routine maintenance.

The transportation projects phase is also where the new design guides come into play. Cities and engineering consultants have created their own design guides and manuals, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has ready lists of proven safety measures ranging from pedestrian crossings to road diets. This growing body of knowledge is featured in the Urban Street Design Guide, released in October 2013 by the National ­Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). Representing the top transportation administrators from America’s largest cities and smaller affiliate cities, NACTO is pioneering a new way of creating and implementing urban transportation policy in the United States.

In a country in which state governments have long dominated highway and road design, NACTO emphasizes the needs of cities. For David Vega-Barachowitz, director of NACTO’s Designing Cities initiative, the driving purpose behind the guide is “to take the qualities that make cities great and make them even better” by celebrating “those qualities that make city streets vibrant and unique.”

NACTO’s guide, available at www.nacto.org, provides a comprehensive set of design strategies for creating a complete street, including language covering lane widths, stormwater management, sidewalks, and complex intersections. NACTO also sees the street design guide as a “living document” that, through updated editions available on the organization website, will reflect new and improved best practices as they develop. The guide takes “streets that you find in American cities today and shows what they could be, what the vision is” through before-and-after transformations and photographs of completed projects, says Vega-Barachowitz.

A street reconstructed according to specifications in NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide. (NACTO)

A street reconstructed according to specifications in NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide. (NACTO)

The design guide includes interim design strategies. Former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn famously used these temporary interventions to create plazas and parklets—seemingly overnight—at Times Square and numerous other portions of city roads underused by pedestrians. Temporary interventions can test improvements, allowing adjacent businesses, residents, and landowners to experience the benefits before more permanent investments are made.

With the Urban Street Design Guide, NACTO also advances a new approach to transportation policy—one the organization began with bicycles. Troubled that innovations accommodating bicycles were quickly outpacing the development of design standards in the United States, NACTO developed its Urban Bikeway Design Guide in 2010. Accelerating local and state support for NACTO’s bikeway guide prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to take the unprecedented step of endorsing both NACTO’s guide and the 2012 fourth edition of the Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities, produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Building on the coalition’s success, NACTO in October 2013 announced it was launching a six-month endorsement campaign for its urban street guide “to cement a new paradigm for urban transportation policy that celebrates the unique nature of city streets.” Like NACTO, the National Complete Streets Coalition is using a bottom-up strategy to set the stage for future federal action; U.S. Representatives Doris Matsui (D-CA) and David Joyce (R-OH) in June 2013 introduced the Safe Streets Act of 2013 (H.R. 2468), which calls on state governments and metropolitan planning organizations to adopt complete streets policies.

A groundswell of local and state support signals to the federal government that Americans expect safe streets and want the many health and economic benefits that travel with them. UL

Sarah Jo Peterson is senior director, policy, at ULI.