Complete Streets from Policy to Project Part 1: Framing and Positioning Complete Streets Efforts

In this first of a six part series, Cindy Zerger and I introduce a recent research report on complete streets from the University of Minnesota and highlight key findings.  The report, entitled Complete Streets from Policy to Project:  The Planning and Implementation of Complete Streets at Multiple Scales, examines the emerging practice around complete streets.  The report presents insights from a diverse set of eleven jurisdictions that have successfully moved from initial interests, plans, and policies, to getting complete streets projects on the ground.  The jurisdictions and their basic characteristics are indicated in the table below.

Case Study Community Stats

Methodology and Report Overview

Drawing on over 100 interviews with a range of community and project stakeholders, the research specifically focuses on the space between initiating complete streets efforts and the construction of one or more complete streets projects.  The report is intended to produce practical and usable insights for jurisdictions in Minnesota and elsewhere.  The report is organized around six best practices, with illustrative examples drawn from the 11 case jurisdictions.  The report also includes detailed case reports that highlight key findings, summarize relevant complete streets documents (e.g. policies, plans), offer a chronological overview of complete streets in the jurisdiction, and illustrate implementation through multiple photos of completed projects.

Best Practice 1:  Framing and Positioning

The remainder of this post focuses on key findings related to the first best practice area: Framing and Positioning.  As we looked across many of the jurisdictions in the study, we quickly discovered that local governments and other agencies were thinking and talking about complete streets in a wide range of ways.  For some jurisdictions, practitioners were leading with efforts to define and advance efforts clearly defined as complete streets.  In other cases complete streets was underlying or simply an evolution of ongoing focus on innovations in transportation.  In other instances, we saw communities making connections between complete streets and broader economic, social, and environmental goals.

Case Example 1 – Lifelong Communities through Complete Streets in the Columbus Metropolitan Area. 

Roundabout in Hilliard, Ohio

Roundabout in Hilliard, Ohio

A first example of the Framing and Positioning Best Practice comes from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the Columbus, Ohio, region.  This agency played a critical role in advancing complete streets in Columbus and surrounding communities.  While its initial approach to advancing complete streets focused on transportation benefits, MORPC’s framing evolved to connecting complete streets to aspirations to build “successful” and “lifelong” communities.  This evolved approach was informed in part by pushback from some stakeholders, as well as insight from some Columbus region communities (e.g. Hilliard, Westerville) that were successfully pursuing complete streets and broader transportation improvements as an explicit response to changing demographics, development trends, and market preferences.  MORPC’s 2012-2035 Metropolitan Transportation Plan clearly makes the connection between complete streets and broader issues of lifelong communities and economic competitiveness:

“MORPC…is working to create ‘lifelong communities.’  The goal is to ensure central Ohio’s cities, villages, townships and counties continue to prosper, attract and retain businesses and residents, and in return have a richer tax base to support important programs, such as infrastructure, education and social services.  An important facet of Lifelong Communities is Complete Streets.”

Following on this broader framing, MORPC conducted regional complete streets workshops, including one focused on market and demographic trends.  In addition, MORPC produced a 10-minute video – “Rethinking Streets for Successful Communities” – with background information on complete streets, as well as perspectives from local elected officials, developers, and experts on the intersection between transportation and successful, competitive communities.

Case Example 2 – Connecting Livability and Sustainability in Dubuque.

Historic Millwork District in Dubuque, Iowa

Historic Millwork District in Dubuque, Iowa

The City of Dubuque also used a broader framing in its efforts to advance complete streets.  Its complete streets initiative is an outcome of the community’s sustainability and livability visioning and planning efforts, called ENVIS10N and Sustainable Dubuque.  The City’s work on sustainability identified complete streets as an approach to advancing livability and contributing to environmental integrity.  In addition, the extensive process and community engagement around these two efforts helped facilitate the Millwork District Master Planning Project.  This redevelopment project that features active manufacturing uses, as well as new residential and commercial development, also includes complete streets components such as bicycle facilities, wide sidewalks, enhanced crossings, public art, and period lighting.

Case Example 3 – Advancing a Modal Shift in Boulder.

Downtown Boulder, Colorado

Downtown Boulder, Colorado

The City of Boulder is widely recognized as a long-time leader and innovator in transportation.  For over twenty years, Boulder has been advancing an approach to transportation that aligns with complete streets, though only recently has the City adopted explicit complete streets language.  Boulder’s framing has focused on building multi-modal networks.  Various iterations of its Transportation Master Plan over the years have further refined the language and the approach.  For example, the 2008 Transportation Master Plan calls for reconciling “two seemingly conflicting goals: first to provide mobility and access in the Boulder Valley in a way that is safe and convenient; and second, to preserve what makes Boulder a good place to live by minimizing auto congestion, air pollution, and noise.”  Key to Boulder’s efforts to implement multi-modal networks was its 1994 decision to limit vehicle miles traveled (VMT) growth to that year’s levels, which set the stage for infrastructure improvements intended to achieve a major modal shift and build out a network with strong connections across modes.

The cases described above offer a glimpse into the approaches that jurisdictions to advance goals related to transportation, but that also connect across additional priorities such as sustainability, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.  The Complete Streets from Policy to Project report offers further detail related to these cases and others.

Up Next…

Watch for part 2 of our series next week, when we will highlight ways that jurisdictions are institutionalizing complete streets – building complete streets approaches into the plans, policies, and practices and making complete streets the rule, rather than the exception.

This research was funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, with additional support from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies.

Carissa Schively Slotterback

About Carissa Schively Slotterback

Carissa Schively Slotterback, PhD, AICP, is an Associate Professor and Director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Her research is focused on stakeholder involvement and decision making in environmental, transportation, and land use planning. Follow her on twitter @cschively.

8 thoughts on “Complete Streets from Policy to Project Part 1: Framing and Positioning Complete Streets Efforts

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I guess I just can’t see the forest for the stroad, but the Boulder picture is an odd example of complete streets promoting a modal shift: a 5-lane downtown street, with no bicycling facility and no on-street parking. There is a bicyclist, riding on the sidewalks (possibly illegally? to avoid traffic?). Pedestrians are present, crossing to a “Bloomington right” porkchop island.

  2. Carissa Schively SlotterbackCarissa Schively Slotterback Post author

    Sean, your comment points out an issue that is central as we consider how to advance complete streets implementation. Complete streets does not necessarily mean all modes on all streets. Just like you can’t illustrate complete streets in a single photo, it’s impossible to accomplish complete streets in a single project. What you see in Boulder, which has been doing this work for many years, is that they are thinking about complete streets from a community and network perspective. They are building networks within and across modes in the community, as well as making connections to some regional systems. I encourage you to take a look at the many other Boulder photos in the report to see the wide range of facilities that Boulder has constructed. In addition, check out Boulder’s Transportation Report on Progress – – for more insight on the way that the jurisdiction is conceptualizing complete streets.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    > “Complete streets does not necessarily mean all modes on all streets.”

    Carissa, I think this is a dangerous statement. I’ve heard things like that a lot, and it really undermines my faith in Complete Streets. Many Complete Streets policies emphasize a balanced network rather than any specific street being “complete”. This is convenient, because no matter how poorly a given street is designed for multimodal uses, a public official can always emphasize that a future route will “balance” things out and solve the bike/ped/transit problems that we’re manufacturing today.

    Let’s put it this way: is Hiawatha Avenue a “Complete Street” simply because of the presence of Minnehaha Avenue’s bike lanes? Is American Boulevard a Complete Street simply because 76th and 86th Streets aren’t too far away?

    I absolutely understand that Complete Streets do not mean the same facilities on every street. A low-volume residential street is not “incomplete” because it does not have striped bike lanes. But I do think a street is incomplete if there’s not meaningful design for a likely mode type.

    I helped write Northfield’s Complete Streets policy, which makes a point of addressing the goal of a balanced network through specific implementation on any given project. It does allow the option to ignore an unlikely mode, but only with specific justification and approval by council. It also makes a point of saying that when segregated facilities are not provided, the shared space must be traffic-calmed. I would like to see similar teeth in more Complete Streets policies.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Although Sean I do hope we leave room for streets that exclude the automobile. Out of all street users, automobile users are the ones who can most easily use other facilities in the network.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Well, I suppose such a thing could happen, Matt, under the same exception process as for excluding another mode — “where the cost of providing such accommodations would be disproportionate given the need”

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Seems to me like the problem isn’t the lack of “complete streets” – the problem is an abundance of stroads.

    Get rid of the stroads, and we can have rural roads (with sidepaths and other accommodations for non-motorized users) and urban streets (where segregation of space is the exception rather than the rule).

    Complete Streets seems like it’s already past its prime… it’s an accommodation/improvement on a failed transportation model. The stroad. If we can get to a point where people belong on our streets more than cars, we’ll be good.

  5. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Great work so far, Carissa and Cindy. I look forward to upcoming installments. I really appreciate that you are tying complete streets to the built environment around them. Victor Dover’s new book “Street Design” highlights this, and the images in the book prove it; so much of what makes streets great is the buildings that line them and how the two relate. “If it’s not beautiful, it is not a complete street” is a common message from the book and presentations Dover is making as he makes presentations about it around the country – we are hoping to host him later this year.

    In fact, less is often more, as Dover demonstrates with Kensington High Street in London, where signage, barricades, and clutter were removed and the street functions much better overall as a result. Echoing Matt’s sentiment, a lot of streets shown in “Street Design” accommodate people more than cars. This a qualitative to be sure, but it’s funny how a street filled with people is a success but if it’s filled with cars it is considered a failure.

    I encourage you all to get a copy of Street Design, or at least follow Victor Dover on Twitter or Like Street Design’s Facebook page. He even coined the term “Completer Streets.”

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