Complete Streets: Safer and Greener

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Photo: Woodward Complete Streets


Walk through Indianapolis or Chicago or Boston these days and you might sense something different. Perhaps you notice more trees or people sitting at sidewalk café tables. You might feel safer when you cross the street or see more cyclists than before.  Maybe there’s even a new rapid bus system or streetcar line.

What you’re experiencing isn’t a fluke: it’s part of a national shift toward streets designed for all users, not just cars: Complete Streets.

In just ten years, the Complete Streets movement is turning hundreds of communities around the country into places that pedestrians, transit users, cyclists and cars feel comfortable using. This hasn’t always been the case: for decades, transportation decisions have prioritized the speedy movement of cars above all else.

There is perhaps no better illustration of what an aggressive Complete Streets plan can do for a city than this “Before and After” video of New York City. Times Square, once a corridor choked with cars, is now a pedestrian oasis with places for people to sit and relax.

Kaid Benfield, Special Counsel for Urban Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that “It’s hard to overstate how fundamental a change [Complete Streets] has wrought in the way we think about such an important part of our communities.”

Because low-income households are more likely to live without cars, Complete Streets also have the potential to help underserved populations meet their mobility needs. Decatur Georgia has installed better pedestrian crosswalks near senior centers and has created routes for kids to get to school safely on bike. After installing a new streetscape in Nashville, planners saw a 300% increase in pedestrian traffic.

EarthShare member Institute for Transportation & Development Policy is helping cities around the world make their streets safer by informing transportation departments and increasing pedestrian visibility at intersections, like this one in Buenos Aires:



The World Resources Institute’s Embarq program has also rolled out projects like cycling paths in Bangalore and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems for Shanghai. Their work couldn’t come at a more needed time: Emerging countries are purchasing cars at an explosive rate. A study from New York University predicted that there will be over 2 billion cars on the road by 2030. This is up from 800 million in 2002.

What does Complete Streets have to do with environmental issues? Transportation is one of the largest contributors to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, it accounts for 27% of all emissions and has been rising faster than other sources. Policies that promote low and no-emission transportation like biking, walking and transit, can help us address climate change (not to mention keep us healthier!).

So what can you do to encourage better facilities for all users in your community? Check out the National Complete Streets Coalition’s Resources page for action ideas.



People Habitat, Kaid Benfield, NRDC

Embarq, World Resources Institute

Complete Streets: Improving Safety and Choices for All, Environmental and Energy Study Institute

The New Chennai Streetscape, ITDP