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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 74 · No. 1 > Street Design: Part 1—Complete Streets

July/August 2010
Vol. 74 · No. 1

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-004

Street Design: Part 1—Complete Streets

by Robin Smith, Sharlene Reed, and Shana Baker

From policy statements to programs and planning, opportunities abound for improving the accessibility of the transportation system for all users.

This intersection in Charlotte, NC, safely accommodates all road users, including motorists, transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
This intersection in Charlotte, NC, safely accommodates all road users, including motorists, transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

For decades, the purpose and goal of street design in the United States was to move as much motorized traffic as expeditiously as possible from point A to point B, regardless of whether the traffic was moving along a major freeway or commercial arterial, or through a city center, village main street, or even a residential neighborhood. Applied speed limits and street design standards would vary from route to route, but in general street design and traffic engineering were all about moving cars and trucks from their origins to their destinations. Even as early as the beginning of the 20th century, officials in New York City mandated the narrowing of sidewalks to create more numerous and wider lanes to accommodate motorized traffic. Pedestrians, planners thought, did not need much room to maneuver.

However, developing a transportation system primarily for motorized vehicular traffic has failed to meet the travel needs and preferences of large segments of the country's population. Among the many factors influencing the planning, design, and operation of today's streets are concerns about accommodating the needs of an aging population, improving public health and fitness, reducing dependence upon foreign oil, minimizing transportation costs, creating and maintaining vibrant neighborhoods, reducing the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change, and adopting greener and more sustainable lifestyles. Ensuring that roads provide safe mobility for all travelers, not just motor vehicles, is at the heart of a new approach to envisioning and building surface transportation facilities known as "complete streets."

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, established in 2005, complete streets are those designed and operated to enable safe access and travel for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, transit users, and travelers of all ages and abilities will be able to move along the street network safely.

"Complete streets policies help communities make a clear commitment to planning all future transportation projects to provide for the safe travel of everyone using the road," says Barbara McCann, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. "Once that commitment is made, planners and engineers have a clear direction to develop new processes, design manuals, and on-the-ground solutions that welcome everyone."

Although the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) does not have an official complete streets policy, the concept is closely associated with the principles promoted by the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a joint endeavor involving the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The partnership aims to provide more transportation choices; support existing communities through transit-oriented, mixed-use development and land recycling (that is, reuse of abandoned, vacant, or underused properties for redevelopment); and value communities by investing in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods.

As stated by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, "President Obama has challenged us to transform the way transportation serves the American people by creating more choices and encouraging less carbon-intensive transportation, and we are working hard on that challenge...It turns out that a complete streets approach offers the perfect intersection of my twin guideposts: safety and livable communities."

In the first of a two-part series on street design, this article looks at how complete streets policies can help make the transportation system more accessible to all travelers. An upcoming article will focus on concepts and practices for designing streets to be more environmentally responsive and sustainable. Combining these two perspectives using a multidisciplinary approach will help maximize the effectiveness and sustainability of the Nation's transportation network.

Defining Complete Streets

Although the guiding principle for complete streets is to create roadways and related infrastructure that provide safe travel for all users, each complete street has to be customized to the characteristics of the area the street serves. A complete street also has to accommodate the needs and expectations of the travelers who want to access or pass through the surrounding neighborhood, community, or region.

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, typical elements that make up a complete street include sidewalks, bicycle lanes (or wide, paved shoulders), shared-use paths, designated bus lanes, safe and accessible transit stops, and frequent and safe crossings for pedestrians, including median islands, accessible pedestrian signals, and curb extensions. Certainly, a design for a complete street in a rural area will look quite different from one in an urban or suburban area. For example, a complete street in a rural area could involve providing wide shoulders or a separate multiuse path instead of sidewalks. The common denominator, however, is balancing safety and convenience for everyone using the road.

Transit, including bus and fixed-rail services, can become a more attractive option when access points that comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act are integrated into roads, sidewalks, and parking areas to allow easier, safer access for all users.

In addition to the new USDOT-HUD-EPA partnership, many other programs at the Federal, State, metropolitan, and local levels already embrace the complete streets approach—or provide the framework to do so—and can help foster more livable communities. Below are a few examples.

This construction project in a rural area will widen the shoulder to accommodate nonmotorized traffic.
This construction project in a rural area will widen the shoulder to accommodate nonmotorized traffic.

United States Code

Several Federal laws and FHWA regulations pertaining to transportation planning and project development support the concept of complete streets. A current Federal statute, United States Code, Title 23, Chapter 2, Section 217 (23 USC 217), mandates that "bicycle transportation facilities and pedestrian walkways shall be considered, where appropriate, in conjunction with all new construction and reconstruction of transportation facilities, except where bicycle and pedestrian use are not permitted." To elaborate on that requirement, FHWA developed bicycle and pedestrian guidance (available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/bikeped/bp-guid.htm) that further explains how and when FHWA requires or encourages accommodation of pedestrians and bicyclists in Federal-aid highway projects.

On March 15, 2010, Secretary LaHood announced the release of an updated "Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations." The policy statement reemphasizes USDOT's support for the development of fully integrated transportation networks and encourages States, local governments, and other organizations to adopt similar policy statements and commit to accommodating bicyclists and pedestrians in the transportation system. The policy statement also calls on transportation agencies and communities to go beyond minimum design standards and requirements to create safe, attractive, sustainable, accessible, and convenient bicycling and walking networks, and offers recommendations on how to do so.

The design and construction of bicycle and pedestrian facilities are eligible to receive funding through core Federal highway funding categories, such as the Surface Transportation Program, the National Highway System, and the Highway Bridge Program.

Diagram. This illustration shows a cross section of the design of an avenue in Charlotte, with various activity zones labeled beneath the illustration. The left half of the figure shows a possible residential scenario, while the right half highlights a possible commercial scenario. Starting at the far left, in the residential scenario, is an area labeled "Development Zone," which includes a single-family home with a shrubbery in the front yard. Just to the right of the front yard is the "Pedestrian Zone," which shows a couple walking down the sidewalk. To the right of that is an area labeled "Green Zone" that contains trees and decorative light posts. Next is a narrow "Bicycle Zone," which is a bike lane with a bicyclist riding in it. To the right of the "Bicycle Zone" is the "Motor Vehicle Zone," with a passenger car. To the right of that, on the other side of the centerline, the figure transitions into the commercial scenario, starting at the left with a passenger car traveling through the "Motor Vehicle Zone." To the right of that is the "Bicycle Zone" and then a "Parking Zone." Next is the "Green Zone," again showing a tree and decorative lamp post, followed by the "Pedestrian Zone" with a walking couple. At the far right is the "Development Zone," with a storefront.
A complete street anticipates and accommodates the needs of all road users, as indicated in this diagram from Charlotte, NC's Urban Street Design Guidelines for the design of a proposed residential or commercial avenue.

Safe Routes to School

Another example, the Federal Safe Routes to School program, brings together individual schools and school districts, students, parents, and law enforcement to develop programs to encourage students from kindergarten through 8th grade to walk or bike to and from their schools. Not only does the program promote exercise in students' daily lives, it also reduces the need for parents to drive their children and the resulting traffic congestion on streets around schools in the mornings and afternoons. FHWA provides Federal funds to all States to distribute to eligible recipients, usually through a competitive grant process, to support educational, safety, and other programs and to pay for infrastructure improvements. To ensure the program's success, FHWA requires each State to designate a full-time Safe Routes to School coordinator. (For more information, see "Safe Routes to School—Making a Big Difference Via Small Steps" in the July/August 2009 issue of Public Roads.)

To take only a single example out of many, school officials at Murch Elementary School in Washington, DC, engaged community partners in a Safe Routes to School program and, in a single school year, made a number of improvements to help ensure a safer walking and bicycling environment. Specifically, the program reversed a school policy prohibiting students from bicycling to school without special permission. The school also secured neighborhood support for construction of new sidewalks, reduced barriers to walking in surrounding neighborhoods, and implemented a 17-member student safety patrol program to enforce safe driving and parking behaviors around the school.

According to Robin Schepper, a parent volunteer at Murch Elementary, getting support from children and their parents, as well as expanding into the community, is critical to creating an environment and infrastructure that makes it safer for young people to walk and bicycle to school. Also, she says, "we reached out to senior centers in our neighborhood because they face the same barriers as students do walking in our neighborhood—speeding traffic, pedestrian lights that change too quickly, and the lack of traffic lights on high-volume streets."

In October 2009, U.S. Congressman James L. Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recognized the school with the 2009 James L. Oberstar Safe Routes to School Award for outstanding achievement. The award acknowledges the school's success in building partnerships within the school and with the surrounding community and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

As part of the Safe Routes to School program, DDOT constructed segments of new sidewalk, such as this one, near Murch Elementary in Washington, DC.
As part of the Safe Routes to School program, DDOT constructed segments of new sidewalk, such as this one, near Murch Elementary in Washington, DC.

Context Sensitive Solutions

Another FHWA-backed approach is applying context sensitive solutions (CSS) to help ensure that streets are indeed "complete" in the sense of being appropriate for the area in which a project is implemented. As defined by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, CSS is a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders in providing a transportation facility that fits its setting. CSS leads to preserving and enhancing scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and environmental resources, while improving or maintaining safety, mobility, and infrastructure conditions.

Transportation officials can apply CSS early in the planning process and throughout project development and delivery. Some of the major elements of CSS include the following:

  • Early and frequent consultation and collaboration with stakeholders and the community during planning and design, and using communications tools, such as design visualization, that help citizens better understand project proposals.
  • Use of an interdisciplinary team to oversee and manage project development.
  • Emphasis on enhancing and retaining the sense of place or uniqueness of an area and its valued resources and features.
  • Consideration of multiple alternatives with the goal of building consensus on a final project, which might include elements of the various alternatives.
  • Minimization of disruptive impacts on the community.

For example, the small community of Bingen, WA, and the Washington State Department of Transportation collaborated to apply a context sensitive solution to improve SR-14 through downtown Bingen. Located along the Columbia River in southern Washington State, Bingen is home to about 680 residents. One of the town's goals was to revitalize its main street while reducing traffic congestion and improving safety along that section of SR-14. Through community outreach, the town enlisted support from residents and other stakeholders to improve the accessibility and appeal of the revamped facility.

Completed in 2004, the project incorporates wider-than-standard sidewalks with bulbouts and other streetscape improvements such as trees and street furniture to attract more people to stop and stroll through the downtown. The designers added features such as left-turn lanes and right-turn pockets to facilitate traffic movement through town and to address the broader safety and congestion concerns. By combining transportation funds with economic revitalization grants, the project sponsors were able to improve the corridor for motorists, pedestrians, and other users.

"At first, some businesses and community residents were skeptical about the street improvements, especially proposals to spend a sizeable sum on sidewalks and trees," says Bingen City Administrator Jan Brending. "But once the project was completed, they were amazed at the difference it made. Downtown Bingen is now much more pedestrian friendly and livable, which has attracted businesses and revitalized the area."

Where SR-14 passes through the town of Bingen, the Washington State DOT worked with local officials to improve accessibility and enhance the appeal of the revamped facility in the downtown area. Improvements included wider sidewalks and these landscaped bulbouts planted with trees and flowers.
Where SR-14 passes through the town of Bingen, the Washington State DOT worked with local officials to improve accessibility and enhance the appeal of the revamped facility in the downtown area. Improvements included wider sidewalks and these landscaped bulbouts planted with trees and flowers.

The Role of State DOTs

Under Federal statute 23 USC 217, State DOTs are required to use a portion of certain Federal funds to hire a State bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. This position is responsible "for promoting and facilitating the increased use of nonmotorized modes of transportation." In addition, in accordance with the Code of Federal Regulations (23 CFR 450.214), each State DOT, in cooperation with metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), is required to develop a multimodal plan that includes nonmotorized and public transportation.

The roles of DOTs and other State agencies in supporting transit programs vary significantly among the States. State laws, programs, institutional arrangements, and other factors influence how a State defines and meets it obligations. Regardless, State DOTs can work with transit operators to help ensure that, through road design standards, transit users can access transit services safely and conveniently along State-maintained routes in urban and rural areas.

Several States have adopted complete streets practices through a variety of mechanisms, including policy statements and revisions to project development and design guidelines. For example, in 2001, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) issued a director's policy on context sensitive solutions that describes the responsibilities of key officials and their respective offices or divisions to define and apply CSS throughout all aspects of transportation planning and project development, design, and implementation. As part of that effort, Caltrans also issued a deputy directive titled "Complete Streets—Integrating the Transportation System," which defines a complete street as a "transportation facility that is planned, designed, operated, and maintained to provide safe mobility for all users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and motorists appropriate to the function and context of the facility." The directive states that Caltrans will facilitate creation of complete streets, "beginning early in system planning and continuing through project delivery and maintenance and operations."

On the other side of the country, Massachusetts significantly revised its guidebook for street and highway design standards to allow greater flexibility and to foster a broader view of the role street and highway design plays in maintaining and enhancing community values and amenities. In fact, multimodal consideration is one of three guiding principles in the updated guidebook: Massachusetts Highway Department: Project Development and Design Guide. Specifically, the guide states that the multimodal focus is "to ensure that the safety and mobility of all users of the transportation system (pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers) are considered equally through all phases of a project so that even the most vulnerable (for example, children and the elderly) can feel and be safe within the public right of way."

The Role of MPOs

In metropolitan areas with populations greater than 50,000, the responsibility for transportation planning lies with designated MPOs. Given their local and municipal focus, MPOs hold the greatest responsibility for adopting livability goals and promoting concepts such as complete streets in an urban region. The metropolitan planning process requires the development of integrated, multimodal transportation plans that address not only roadways, but also transit services and facilities, intermodal connections, pedestrian walkways, bicycle facilities, and other supportive programs and activities.

Transportation planning by MPOs can foster implementation of complete streets principles through various activities:

  • Developing land use, economic development, and transportation (or other infrastructure) plans in a coordinated manner, with all elements supporting a common vision.
  • Facilitating alternative transportation modes through land use goals and design standards.
  • Connecting transportation projects and programs to public and private investments so they complement each other and support broader community goals.
  • Accommodating the flow of freight while avoiding or minimizing negative impacts on residential areas, city centers, and other users of the transportation system.
  • Considering a range of strategies, tools, and modal options to support complete streets and similar livability goals and activities.

Although not all facilities within a metropolitan region are significant enough to include in a metropolitan transportation plan or receive Federal funding through that plan, an MPO can ensure that member local governments, the relevant State DOT, and transit agencies consider the needs of all residents and visitors in that region. For example, an MPO can set appropriate regional goals and funding priorities, ensuring that a robust public involvement process includes key stakeholders, interest groups, and the public. The MPO also can coordinate regional planning with local transportation and comprehensive plans to include not only roadways but also facilities and systems related to transit and nonmotorized traffic.

For example, the Cheyenne MPO in Wyoming has taken an active role in implementing elements of its award-winning, integrated city-county comprehensive transportation plan known as PlanCheyenne. With the MPO's assistance, the Cheyenne Planning Department is putting the plan recommendations into law. Cheyenne had three separate code documents covering subdivisions, zoning, and street and site design standards, which were not necessarily compatible with each other. Now, however, the city is adopting a unified development code that will reflect the complete streets ideas presented in PlanCheyenne. The intent is to develop a balanced design for regional and local routes that safely accommodates all potential users of the streets and rights-of-way. In addition, the city expects to limit block sizes to enhance neighborhood connectivity and circulation for all modes. The Cheyenne MPO also approaches all corridor planning activities with the intention of creating complete streets.

Although street design standards usually are the purview of the State DOT and local governments, an MPO can assist those agencies through education and technical assistance to incorporate design elements that accommodate all users. An MPO can take a leadership role to establish regional policies that encourage complete streets design through a variety of programs and processes, and give funding preference to projects that reflect complete streets principles. Each MPO needs to decide if and how it will promote complete streets within its region, but its approaches can be creative and tailored to local circumstances.

As another example, in January 2009, the Bloomington/Monroe County MPO in Indiana took the lead in its region when it adopted a complete streets policy that applies to all local roadway projects where the MPO has programming authority to allocate Federal funding. The initial impetus behind the complete streets policy came from the MPO's citizens advisory committee. From there, the MPO facilitated regional collaboration and consensus building among key transportation stakeholders to craft a regional policy. "It was a challenging process to develop the policy, but we believe it was worth the effort," says Josh Desmond, director of the Bloomington/Monroe County MPO. "The policy will foster consideration of the needs of all road users in transportation plan and project development. No user will be left behind."

Local Governments and Transit Operators

In many cases, local governments are the organizations that ultimately decide how to implement a complete streets policy or ordinance within their respective jurisdictions, particularly on facilities owned and operated by those local entities. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, by early 2010, 124 jurisdictions had adopted or committed to adopt complete streets policies. In addition, either with the State DOT or in concert with other members of the regional MPO, local governments can support efforts to apply complete streets concepts across jurisdictional boundaries and to all roads within their respective jurisdictions, regardless of which government agency "owns" them.

The city of Charlotte, NC, is one example of a local government that has implemented a complete streets policy. In October 2007, Charlotte's city council adopted its Urban Street Design Guidelines to help the city shape its development patterns and provide residents and visitors with viable choices for how they move about the city. The guidelines include recommending block lengths for new developments that foster a denser, well-connected network of streets that in turn promotes more compact building design. The city also encourages wide planting strips to allow large, mature trees to continue growing, enhancing Charlotte's tree canopy and making the streets more pleasant for pedestrians and motorists alike. In addition, Charlotte is making pedestrian crossings more visible and changed traffic signal timing to better accommodate pedestrians. In recognition of these successes, EPA awarded Charlotte the 2009 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in Policies and Regulations.

Transit operators too can encourage or require transportation plans and project design elements to accommodate all riders, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and disabled individuals who use transit as part of their travels. Through institutional and working relationships with government agencies and the private sector, transit providers have a say in or bear responsibility for developing and designing transit stops, stations, and transfer/intermodal centers. Close coordination with local governments, MPOs, State DOTs, and even private developers who have ownership of streets and other properties adjacent to transit access points can help ensure that riders have convenient and safe access to transit services.

For example, in 2004 the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) in California published Designing With Transit: Making Transit Integral to East Bay Communities, a guidebook targeting elected officials, local staff, and community builders. The document serves as a toolbox for community agencies working to make their main streets more vital and pedestrian friendly, and aims to help integrate transit more effectively into the local and regional planning processes. According to Nathan Landau, a senior transportation planner with AC Transit who helped develop the manual, Alameda has retrofitted a major arterial with streetscape improvements and customized bus stops consistent with the principles and goals of Designing With Transit. At least one member jurisdiction is considering incorporating portions of the manual into its comprehensive plan. In the next update to the guidebook, Landau adds, "complete streets principles will be clearly referenced, now that member jurisdictions are more familiar with the term."

The effect of applying Charlotte's Urban Street Design Guidelines is apparent on Elizabeth Avenue, shown here, where pedestrians, cars, and buses coexist, and landscaping creates an aesthetically pleasing environment.
The effect of applying Charlotte's Urban Street Design Guidelines is apparent on Elizabeth Avenue, shown here, where pedestrians, cars, and buses coexist, and landscaping creates an aesthetically pleasing environment.

Thinking Beyond the Car

Transportation agencies and their partners already have the ability—through legislation, Federal programs, policy statements, design guidelines, and planning—to provide more complete streets to all travelers by taking advantage of the many opportunities to go beyond traditional approaches.

As Secretary LaHood said in a recent posting on "Fast Lane," the Secretary's official blog, "We need roadways designed to account for the needs of everyone who uses them, whether driving, walking, or riding in a wheelchair or on a bicycle."

All transportation professionals, regardless of their respective disciplines, have the power to help create a transportation network that rises to the challenge of meeting the mobility requirements of the 21st century. Getting there requires a shift in mindset from designing an auto-focused highway system to operating a transportation network that accommodates all users and modes safely and conveniently.


Robin Smith is a senior transportation planner in the FHWA Office of Planning. In her 30 years with FHWA, Smith has worked primarily as a transportation planner in FHWA division, region, and headquarters offices. She received her B.S. from Michigan State University and her master's of regional planning from the University of Michigan.

Sharlene Reed is a community planner with FHWA, working in the newly formed Office of Human Environment, Livability Team. Previously, she was a neighborhood transportation planner with DDOT. Reed is a graduate of the University of the District of Columbia with a B.A. in political science and a master's of urban and regional planning.

Shana V. Baker is a community planner with FHWA's newly formed Office of Human Environment, Livability Team. She has a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in urban planning from the University of Akron.

For more information, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/context/what.cfm or www.completestreets.org. Or contact Robin Smith at 720-963-3072, robin.smith@dot.gov; Sharlene Reed at 202-366-9629, sharlene.reed@dot.gov; or Shana Baker at 202-366-4649, shana.baker@dot.gov..

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