Will Complete Streets Become the Law of the Land?

Colored bike lane and intersection
Well-marked intersections increase accessibility to all road users

Complete Streets principles state that our roads must be safely accessible to all users regardless of mode choice. That represents clear break from the the Mesozoic era of automobility when the blacktop was the exclusive province of motorists. Yet it has yet to catch on with state transportation agencies and local departments of transportation. To the rescue comes the Safe Streets Act of 2013. Co-authored by California’s Representative Doris Matsui (Sacramento), the legislation would to force states and localities to recognize their responsibility to finally make our streets more safe.

Complete streets principles are quite sensible in planning and practice. As the National Complete Streets Coalition says, complete Streets are streets for everyone:

They are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Complete Streets make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops, and bicycle to work….Creating Complete Streets means transportation agencies must change their approach to community roads. By adopting a Complete Streets policy, communities direct their transportation planners and engineers to routinely design and operate the entire right of way to enable safe access for all users.

The Federal Highway Administration under Ray LaHood has promoted complete streets. The State of California has outlined its principles in planning guidance. Even our own transportation agency Caltrans expressly mandates that transportation project construction comply. But getting local governments and regional planning agencies to abide our need for safe streets has been a challenge.

What the New Bill Says

Enter Representative Doris Matsui and House colleague David Joyce (Ohio). They have stepped up with proposed federal legislation to require that states, localities, and regional planning agencies develop complete streets policies within two years for all projects using federal funding. Because transportation agencies live on DC succor, this is powerful leverage indeed!

The Safe Streets Act of 2013 is the third time that Matsui has advanced a bill to direct localities to make our streets safer. Similar bills in 2011 and in 2009 (each introduced by Matsui) have sought to extend all-access planning to our thoroughfares. This bill likewise would ensure

safe and adequate accommodation, in all phases of project planning and development, of all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users, children, older individuals, individuals with disabilities, motorists, and freight vehicles; and (B) the consideration of the safety and convenience of all users in all phases of project planning and development. (Safe Streets Act of 2013)

The Safe Streets Act of 2013 outlines several important dimensions of a federal leadership role:

  • Provide technical assistance for “developing, adopting, and implementing plans, projects, procedures, policies, and training programs that comply with complete streets principles” to guide localities in “identifying the needs of users…and the types and designs of facilities needed to serve each class of users”;
  • Bring federal agencies together to support multimodal mobility, such as identifying the “multimodal capacity” of State and local roadways and collecting non-motor travel data;
  • Invite collaboration among the American Planning Association, the American Society of Landscape Architects and “representatives of transportation safety, disability, motoring, bicycling, walking, transit user, aging, and air quality organizations” to develop best practices for complete streets implementation; and,
  • Ensure that “affected” communities are represented in the implementation process.

Why the need for a federal law? Aren’t complete streets principles simply common sense for transportation corridors today?

Beverly Hills: Late to the Complete Streets Party

Backbone missing piece map
Beverly Hills is the missing link in our regional bike route network.

Why yes complete streets is common sense for transportation corridors. But as our own experience advocating for safer streets in Beverly Hills would attest, not all jurisdictions see the value. Until we argued before Council that complete streets principles must be integral to the upcoming reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard, it was business-as-usual for that project (to be completed in 2015): simply repave the blacktop and add new landscaping. But that wouldn’t have delivered a safe corridor. And it certainly wouldn’t have plugged the hole in the regional bike backbone network that is Beverly Hills.

Indeed the complete streets concept was alien to our transportation planners. The phrase ‘complete streets’ never seemed to trip from their lips. Our Public Works director (now retired) was more transportation engineer than advocacy planner. Our General Plan Circulation Element remains silent today on complete streets (or any other equity-in-access policy). It was last updated (in 2010) a year after California had adopted its complete streets policy guidance for localities.

Pottstown, PA road diet at High and Penn streets
Removing half of the travel lanes and installing bike lanes and reverse-angle parking sure makes for a safer, more appealing street.

Our city remains a relic from the Mesozoic era.* Steel dinosaurs roam the blacktop largely unimpeded by bicycle facilities or upgraded crosswalks. Danger is baked into the design of our streets. Imagine if Beverly Hills remade South Beverly as a complete street? It would look something like Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which did that very thing to High Street (left).

To its credit, though, our Council did respond to the call for an improved Santa Monica Boulevard corridor and directed transportation staffers to explicitly include complete streets principles in the direction to bidders. Viola! The proposals the city received reflected that charge. (We’ll be posting a comparative look at those received proposals shortly.) This fall a conceptual design will be selected and we sure hope you’ll turn out for a hearing to champion a design inclusive of bicycle lanes and complete streets principles.


The Safe Streets Act of 2013 as introduced in June by Rep. Matsui and Congressman David Joyce would change that. It is supported by numerous organizations including AARP, Transportation for America, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, the American Planning Association, the League of American Bicyclists, and the National Association of Realtors. When the realtors are on your side you know you’re not out of the mainstream.

We’ll look forward to Congressional action. To date we haven’t managed to score a transportation bill we can live with. Maybe we can take a baby step towards safer streets by requiring localities and agencies to think about how those streets and projects should look once DC forks over the money. Take a minute and call Rep. Matsui’s Sacramento office and tell them how you feel about her leadership: (916) 498-5600. And read more about complete streets over at the California Bicycle Coalition.

*Fun fact: Beverly Hills is funding the Santa Monica Boulevard project entirely on our own. That came as a surprise to a regional planner, who suggested it might be because the city wants to remain free of federal and state mandates – precisely those that this Act would require. Beverly Hills may yet remain one of the few jurisdictions that refuse to join nearly 500 localities and agencies that have embraced complete street policies.