<< Back
Monday, Dec 15, 2014

Complete Streets: Transforming our Cities

Complete Streets

Since the days of the horse and buggy (not that I would know personally), streets have been planned and designed as a means of getting from Point A to Point B, thereby fulfilling the typical role of streets as a linear corridor. The image in the classic western movies of horse and buggy competing in space with gentlemen and lady pedestrians hurrying to cross the town main street conjures up those early images of conflict between traffic and pedestrians.

Conventional street function and classification has been hierarchical. Road designers are very familiar with the functional classification relationship between streets providing access to adjacent lands and streets providing mobility to the road users. The higher the road functional classification the more attention is paid to mobility with less emphasis to access to adjacent lands. This has been the conventional approach to the establishment of street functional classification for decades.

The conventional approach to street design suggests that the higher the classification of the street, the more emphasis is paid to speed, capacity, and volumes, and less attention is given to accessibility. This approach has often resulted in local streets that are narrow, confining, and restrictive, while the major arterial streets are typically wide, expansive, and often are seen as barriers to pedestrians and cyclists due to the speed and high volumes of traffic and heavy trucks. In fact, traditional arterial streets are often seen by community residents as divisive barriers to their own communities, with limited opportunities for linkages from one side of the community to the other side.

Complete Streets represents a change in roadway design philosophy. Complete Streets design is intended to represent a holistic approach to the design and function of the road. A Complete Street is a place that is designed to be safe, attractive, comfortable, and welcoming to all street users. In the context of Complete Streets, roads are seen more as a social space where people have the opportunity to live, work, and play, rather than just the link from Point A to Point B.

This change in street design philosophy has the most profound effect on streets in urban centres. This change in philosophy is only restricted to our largest urban cities in Canada, however, as towns and cities, large and small, appear to be embracing this philosophy. Many urban centres have produced their own standards and manuals to guide the design and development of their Complete Streets. No wonder that these standards and manuals on Complete Street design have value and culture statements woven into them that reflect the unique and individual values of the communities they serve. Having said this, the Transportation Association of Canada, which in the past has been seen to mostly represent a rural constituent, has produced policies and guidelines on designing for Complete Streets in a trend to providing more codes and standards in an urban context.

It can be argued that the embodiment of Complete Streets design in North America is no stronger advocated than by the National Complete Streets Coalition. This group is a non-profit, non-partisan alliance of public interest organizations and transportation professionals based in Washington, D.C., and committed to the development and implementation of Complete Streets policies and practices. In the USA in 2013, it was reported that 15 agencies had developed Complete Street policies and guides for implementation. Currently the National Complete Streets Coalition reports that over 610 jurisdictions have developed Complete Street policies. 

It has been well documented that a number of key benefits await those jurisdictions who implement Complete Streets policies and standards. 

Healthier lifestyles result from the promotion of more active modes of transportation, such as walking, running, cycling, and increased use of public transit.

A healthier environment can be achieved following the adoption of Complete Street codes and standards.  It is estimated that if the entire Canadian population increased its current average of 8% walking or cycling to 10%, the total number of vehicle trips would drop by about 100 million annually. The National Complete Street Coalition estimated that if each driver replaced one car trip with one bike trip once a month, carbon dioxide emissions would be cut by about 3,400 tonnes per year in the USA.

Key principles embodied in the Complete Streets philosophy follow the integration of land-use and transportation planning and design. This fosters a more vital social environment for business and community to exist together in a safer and more attractive place to live and work.

Complete Streets blend the best practices of many different and diverse movements-new urbanist and transit-oriented development, and walkable communities - and also help to meet the goals of smart growth and sustainability. The philosophy behind the concept is holistic in nature. All stakeholders in the road network must be involved in order to create a transportation system that works for everyone. This not only leads to greater cooperation among many different users and stakeholders, it helps create more mobility options, provides safer and more livable communities, and reduces municipal, business and personal costs.

About the Author:

Bryan Petzold, P.Eng., MBA
Vice President, Transportation Planning & Traffic Engineering

Bryan has over 37 years of experience in planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation infrastructure. Bryan’s previous experience working in municipal and provincial government gives him a unique understanding of public sector requirements.