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Complete Streets Promotes Access For All

A complete street is a road segment designed to be safe for drivers; bicyclists; transit vehicles and users; and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. The Complete Streets standards can benefit communities in many ways and save money in the long run. 

The Complete Streets concept is becoming more mainstream as communities make an effort to encourage more integrated traffic beyond just the use of private motor vehicles and freight carriers. It’s a transportation network approach to planning and design. According to Smart Growth America (SGA) - an organization dedicated to researching, advocating, and leading coalitions to bring better development to communities nationwide - over 700 agencies at the local, regional, and state levels have adopted Complete Streets policies to date.

National organizations such as the American Planning Association (APA), American Public Works Association (APWA), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) have developed policy statements in support of Complete Streets concepts.

The Complete Streets concept isn’t new. It’s been around in some form or another for over thirty years. Only now is it being focused on more seriously, as much of the infrastructure in many communities is being re-evaluated for myriad reasons. Communities are realizing that in order to attract more people to their cities and towns, there are certain amenities that are becoming expected. 

The benefits of the Complete Streets philosophy are many. As the United States continues to wage the war against sedentary lifestyles that cause numerous health problems, providing better access to pedestrian and bicycle-friendly paths is one way to promote a healthy lifestyle. Research from James F. Sallis and Karen Glanz has attempted to connect the role of obesity in children with current “built environments.” Although the research is in its infancy, one fact they have established is that current development patterns such as lack of sidewalks, long distances to schools, and the need to cross busy streets, discourage walking and biking. Also, due to motor vehicle-focused design and related congestion, safety for bicyclists and pedestrians is of particular interest.

Some elements of a “complete street” include sidewalks, bike lanes, bus lanes, public transportation signage, and median islands. These elements encourage safe biking, walking, and public transportation.

The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) recently informed the City of Champaign of their intention to replace the bridge carrying Windsor Road over Interstate 57. With input from the City of Champaign, IDOT’s new Windsor Road-Interstate 57 overpass was rebuilt with new five-foot wide sidewalks and six-foot wide bike lanes. These new Complete Streets features provide safe, multi-modal travel benefits for all users. The City took advantage of additional grant funding made available through the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP) to install these features on the approaches as well. 

Complete Streets concepts benefit communities in many ways besides providing safe transportation corridors encouraging biking and walking. In addition, Complete Streets intiatives promote alternative modes of transportation, effectively helping the environment through reduced emissions. Effective alternative transportation modes include buses, trolleys, subways, light rail, street cars, and ferries which accommodate more travelers in the same space and create better options for getting between home, jobs, and stores.
An efficient transportation network involves multiple routes and types, but also allows for more people in the same road space which reduces congestion. When streets are connected in a complete network, the additional route options allow for faster and easier transport from point A to point B. 

Another Complete Streets benefit which could be overlooked is the impact additional lighting has on safety and reduced crime.

Economic vitality in a community can be enhanced with the addition of corridors that create safer, easier, and more efficient transportation. A great article by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Evaluating Complete Streets, explains the importance of creating a community that relies less on automobiles and more on walking, biking, and public transportation. According to SGA, in studying eight of the ten communities with available data, they found employment levels rose after Complete Streets projects (in some cases significantly). There was also an increase in net new businesses after Complete Streets improvements; additionally, property values rose. See report.

Opponents may argue that costs to implement a Complete Streets design are much more than the traditional design. However, according to research done by James Shapard, P.E. and Mark Cole P.E. of the Charlotte, North Carolina Department of Transportation, they found no significant cost difference between Complete Streets and traditional street plan, design, and build. They also found costs can be offset depending on the design choices made. In a report filed by the State of Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the construction costs of using Complete Streets design were .006% of the total construction budget for the State.
Some simple design changes that won’t break the bank include – restriping to narrow travel lanes and provide more room for bicycles and/or pedestrians; changing signal timing; installing refuge islands, medians, and curb extensions; restriping crosswalks to be more visible; installing temporary curbside plazas; adding pedestrian countdown signals; using on-street head-out angled parking instead of parallel parking, to narrow wide, dangerous roadways; and adding bus stops to existing streets as a means to enhance public transportation accommodations.

Many communities have come to the conclusion that a Complete Streets approach is worth considering when designing and replacing new and existing roads and bridges. To many local officials, the long term public health and economic vitality is worth the extra cost.  In the end, Complete Streets supports healthy communities, are safer for everyone, can be a powerful economic engine, and are a cost-effective and long-term strategy for congestion mitigation. 

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