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Complete Streets: Changing the Way Our Communities Work

Complete streets, also known as “living streets” or “residential zones,” offer a way to transform America’s roadways into safer, healthier, more inclusive pathways for all users.  The movement toward adopting this form of public infrastructure began in Europe in the 1970s.  Today, it has taken a firm hold in the United States as local and state governments join with private groups across the country in promoting their goals.

Beginning in the late 1940s, the automobile became the standard means of transportation for most Americans, even for local destinations that could easily be reached by foot.  For millions of people, the new car culture was a boon.  It opened up educational, cultural, and economic opportunities to many sections of the nation.

These advantages have resulted in some specific drawbacks, however. The following are just a few of the side effects of America’s car culture:

● Rising levels of pollution that degrade air quality and contribute to respiratory ailments.
● Loss of land once used for public gatherings, children’s games, and foot travel.
● Increases in health problems such as heart disease, which can be attributed to the sedentary lifestyle promoted by excessive automobile use.

The complete streets movement seeks to alleviate these problems by reinventing the nation’s roads in practical, achievable ways.  Some of the principles guiding these initiatives are:

1. Inclusivity: This is achieved by adding more sidewalks, bike lanes, and greenways to the areas designated for public roads.  This will accomplish two goals: beautifying the nation’s communities and promoting the use of alternative means of transportation. 
2. Practicality: While some areas could benefit enormously from complete street efforts, others are unsuited for them because of local geography or designated use.  For example, an interstate highway is a poor location for a bike trail.  Also, many towns and cities have already taken steps towards making their roads greener and more accessible.  Efforts to promote the complete streets vision are unnecessary or impractical in these cases.
3. Adaptability: The movement avoids a one-size-fits-all approach to reinventing America’s roads.  Rather, it offers a panoply of ideas that each community can adopt as needed.  For example, a dense urban neighborhood may wish to incorporate green spaces, bike lanes, and pedestrian paths into its existing streets.  A lightly populated rural area, however, may have no need for these measures.  But it may benefit from adding bike lanes along road shoulders, giving riders a chance to enjoy the fresh air and scenery while sharing the road with motor vehicles.

Benefits of Adopting Complete Streets Measures

The movement to transform America’s roadways offers a number of features that make it worthy of support, like the following:

● Reduced consumption of fossil fuels as a result of less driving, which helps to lessen the effects of global climate change.
● Improved public health from increased physical activity – Many of the ailments that burden the healthcare system result from a lack of exercise, a problem that Complete Streets can work towards solving.
● Safer conditions for drivers – With fewer cars and trucks on the roads, the likelihood of wrecks will drop.  Also, reducing the number of lanes devoted to motor cars will lead to lower speed limits and, in all probability, more careful driving.  Thus, all users of the nation’s infrastructure will benefit from Complete Streets initiatives.
● Increased use of public transportation such as busses, trains, and trolleys – Besides saving resources, this will lessen travelers’ carbon footprints, which will help to preserve the environment.


Progress can take many forms.  Sometimes it leads to faster speeds and increased mobility.  Other times, however, progress takes the form of promoting health, enjoying nature, and embracing simplicity.  These are the values underlying the complete streets movement, making its implementation a worthy goal for public planners and private groups alike.