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Why Every City Needs a Complete Streets Policy

Posted by KenParrott | 09 September 2019

Adopting a complete streets policy offers a range of benefits to cities of all sizes.  These include: healthier citizens, less traffic congestion, and a cleaner, more beautiful environment.  Despite these advantages, the movement toward complete streets has been met with resistance in some circles.  This post will address some of the major objections to a complete streets policy, showing that these objections are based on unfounded fear or a lack of factual support.  


Complete Streets and Civil Liberties


Some of the most vocal opponents to the movement towards a complete streets policy have been civil libertarians, who see it as yet another attempt by “big government” to control citizen's lives.  This fear, however, overlooks the fact that people can be inspired to make healthy choices without coercion, simply by making small changes in how options are presented to them.  The 2009 book Nudge discusses this topic, offering insight about how human beings make many of the most important decisions of their lives.  Here are some examples:


·        Officials at a public high school wanted to encourage students to eat healthier foods during lunch.  Rather than banning items like pizza and French fries from the cafeteria, they simply rearranged the way menu choices were presented so that the first things pupils saw as they entered the lunch room were fruits and vegetables.  As a result, students ate 40% more fresh produce than they did before those minor changes were made.

·        Human resources managers at a Fortune 500 firm boosted enrollment in the company’s 401 K program simply by making participation the default option on the company form.  Workers were still free to decline, but they would have to check a box saying that they were choosing to do so instead of checking a box to say they were enrolling.  In most cases, they let the default option stand.  


These examples reveal that many people make selections about their lives on “autopilot,” with little deliberation about the consequences; they follow the pattern encouraged by the structure laid out in front of them, and if it were presented in a different way, they could make an entirely different decision.  Thus, initiatives like a complete streets policy can help citizens make better choices, such as walking or riding a bike instead of driving, while in no way restricting their civil liberties.


Complete Streets and Traffic Issues


Another objection to adopting a complete streets policy is that it will exacerbate already congested streets.  This concern, however, is not supported by the facts.  For example, studies of California traffic patterns show that newly constructed lanes are filled to capacity within five years of being built.  Yet more than half of all automotive trips made in urban areas are less than two miles in length.  Building complete streets would free many of the people who are currently driving to walk or ride bicycles instead, easing congestion rather than adding to it.


The Benefits of Adopting a Complete Streets Policy


When weighed against any potential drawbacks, the advantages offered by complete streets provide a compelling argument for their widespread adoption.  These benefits include:


Cleaner air due to reduced auto emissions and added green space.

City beautification from the addition of trees, plants, and works of art.

Improved public health from increased physical activity.  Studies show that rates of heart disease, the leading killer of Americans, could be reduced dramatically if people simply walked or bicycled more.

Less automotive accidents because of the smaller volume of motor vehicles on the roads.

A healthier, more community-centered environment.



 Objections to cities adopting a complete streets policy are based on unfounded concerns and a lack of information.  With the many benefits that they offer, the movement towards complete streets should be encouraged by both private groups and public policy makers at all levels.

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