American Streets Are Incomplete

Eric Carlson
May 29, 2020 · 4 min read

This is why we need to make our city streets complete

Photo by Matt Bero on Unsplash

Do you ever find yourself walking down a sidewalk in a city, and when you look to cross the street, suddenly find yourself filled with fear at the prospect of crossing six lanes of traffic?

If so, you’re not the only one.

Traditional roadway designs in the United States have often ignored or downplayed the needs of street users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Instead of taking into account all citizens, streets and street design have traditionally been all about getting as much traffic through a city area as quickly as possible.

Because of this, bike lanes, sidewalks and street crossing were always an afterthought. 30 years ago, bike lanes were hard to find, and in some areas sidewalks and road crossings were barely adequate to support anyone who wanted to walk anywhere.

Some could argue that everyone drives anyway. But this argument doesn’t take into account the self-fulfilling prophecy of designing ONLY for cars: If the streets aren’t set up for walking, biking, or riding transit, people can’t be blamed for not choosing those forms of transportation.

When you have a major highway or interstate blocking your path, I wouldn’t blame anyone for being a little scared to cross it.

The Complete Streets Movement

People are calling this new design framework “Complete Streets,” and many municipalities and counties across the United States are beginning to greenlight and implement projects under that name.

This has manifested itself in many different ways, from total street overhauls to new laws that mandate the addition of bike lanes on upgraded streets, something that has now been instituted in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

So far, over 1500 Complete Streets policies have been adopted by the state and local governments in the United States. This includes 35 state governments as well as the District of Columbia.

All this information and more is provided in the Complete Streets Policy Atlas published by Smart Growth America, one of the country’s leading advocates for complete streets policies and projects. You can find a link to the policy atlas below:

The interactive atlas provides a full map of complete streets policies that have been passed in the United States. Location data is provided along with a legend that identifies complete streets plans by different designations, including resolutions, laws/ordinances, plans, and design manuals/guides.

As is shown in the policy atlas, the majority of these policies are resolutions, followed in second by official policies. 280 of them are legislation, which is a good sign that at least a few communities want to require these types of street design measures and give cities the power to enforce them.

We know that the ideas behind complete streets have caught on with local government, but some still may be wondering why complete streets are important. To understand why they are, let’s look at a few elements of complete streets.

What Makes A Street Complete?

One example of a complete street design

A complete street in one area can be completely different from a complete street in another area. This is because complete streets are context-dependent, changing due to the needs of the street users in that area.

A complete street in a dense urban area could be very different from one in a rural area, for example. In the urban area, the city may implement things like protected bike lanes, bollards, bus-only lanes, and pedestrian refuges. In a rural area, a complete street might only include a bike lane and an improved sidewalk.

That’s the thing with complete streets — It all depends. The point isn’t to require that every street has a strict list of elements as part of it, but that we include everyone that will potentially use that street in its design.

Because complete streets is such a broad concept, it allows the idea to seep into all sorts of discussions surrounding street infrastructure and urban design. Complete streets is part of ideas about commuting networks and public transportation routes, as well as a key talking point in how cities are organized and laid out from the ground up.

To me, the future goal is to get to a place where our communities offer people the option to transport themselves safely by any form they want. If they’d like to walk, they will have sidewalks and safe pedestrian crossings. If they want to bike, they will have a protected bike lane that will buffer them from fast-moving cars.

This will all work together as part of town centers and larger cities that offer the surrounding community the ability to access retail, work, and commercial areas by any form of transportation.

With complete streets and street design in general, the discussion goes on. What would you like to see as part of your community’s streets? Comment below if you have an idea.

Modern City

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Eric Carlson

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Modern City

A publication for all things urban, from transportation design to urban planning and beyond.

Eric Carlson

Written by

Sign up for my newsletter at I make T-Shirts too at

Modern City

A publication for all things urban, from transportation design to urban planning and beyond.

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