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What Is a Complete Street?

Posted on 01/25/2012 by |AARP Education & Outreach | Comments

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A complete street in a rural setting in Bainbridge Island, Wash., where vehicle speeds and volume are so low that sidewalks aren’t even needed.

Like many people my age, it’s easy for me to put off the thought of setting aside the car keys one day. But recently, and especially with the snowy weather in my town lately, it’s been on my mind. As I traveled the nearly deserted streets of Port Townsend, Wash., by foot last week and noted that cars were slow and drivers courteous, I thought about the country’s need for “complete streets.”

You may have heard this term before but not understood what it means or how it affects us as we age. A complete street is one that accommodates all people who use a roadway, not just those in cars. It offers a safe way for people to travel, regardless of their age, ability or mode of transportation—whether walking, biking, using transit or driving a car. Where we have complete streets, people have choices in transportation, including an option that is right outside each door, is affordable and is healthy.

For aging boomers and seniors, complete streets are particularly important. We are at great risk for rapidly declining health and social isolation once we lose the ability to travel on our own. About 20 percent of seniors today do not drive; and half of all non-drivers age 65 or older stay at home on a given day because they lack transportation. I watched this pattern with both my parents and in-laws.

An incomplete street in Morrow, Ga., the likes of which can be found in just about any town in the country.

By 2015, more than 15.5 million older Americans will live in communities where public transportation options are poor or nonexistent. Thus, if seniors want to go somewhere, many must walk or use other non-motorized modes of transportation. If we want to age—or live—in place, without moving into assisted-care facilities or into the homes of our adult children, we need to be able to use active modes of transportation.

But doing so can be particularly dangerous for us: older pedestrians are at a much higher risk of being killed by a vehicle than younger counterparts. Although people age 65 and older make up less than 13 percent of the total U.S. population, we represented 22 percent of recent pedestrian deaths. People age 75 and older make up slightly more than six percent of the population, yet they were the victims in 13 percent of pedestrian deaths.

A vision for completing the street in Morrow, GA.

This all adds up to tell us that we need to invest in our communities by designing or redesigning streets to be “complete.” Then, we need to connect them so that we have a network for travel.

The components of a complete street will vary from place to place. For example, what makes a street complete in a rural area might be quite different from that of a suburban or an urban area. Frequently, though, when we talk about complete streets, we talk about:

  • Well-maintained sidewalks that are wide enough for the anticipated uses
  • Calm traffic, with cars moving at safe speeds
  • Buffers between people and cars, often in the form of street trees, planter strips, a furniture zone, or even on-street parking
  • A lot of places to cross the street, with short crossing distances and crossings that are properly marked, signed and lit. If needed, crossing median islands that provide pedestrian refuge.
  • Full accommodations for people with disabilities, even at driveways
  • On-street bike lanes or off-street pathways where needed
  • Trees for shade, beauty and their ecological benefits
  • Places to sit, both along walkways and at transit stops
  • Lighting on primary streets

Creating complete streets doesn’t need to be expensive. In some cases, it is a matter of just moving the paint; for example, a “road diet” that reduces the number of vehicle travel lanes and uses the remaining space to add bike lanes or on-street parking might be accomplished just by moving the stripes. When completing a street does cost more than building the conventional option, it is normally a modest increase in cost—perhaps five percent—but is a worthwhile investment.

The importance of complete streets has been brought to the national spotlight by concerns about housing and transportation for aging baby boomers, as well as concerns borne of the country’s housing crisis, struggling economy, rising cost of fuel and environmental degradation. Communities are increasingly saying they want their streets to be complete; in fact, more than 300 jurisdictions, from Hawaii to Vermont and from University Place, Wash. to Winter Park, Fla., have adopted complete streets policies. Legislation is winding its way through Washington that would require federally funded street projects to provide safe accommodations for all users.

I think that if we invest in complete streets now, then not only will we all be happier and healthier as we age, but one day our children will thank us—especially if they don’t have to drive across town, or even a few blocks, to help us across the street.

Dan Burden is the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.