Complete Streets is That Enough?

By Natasha Alfonso-Ahmed, Director of Urban Design & Planning 

Co-writer Saul Umana, Urban Design and Planning Intern

After years of poor street design that placed the importance of cars over people, we have reached a tipping point in America. Municipalities across the United States are now facing the negative impacts so cities and regions are now adopting and implementing a concept called “complete streets”. But how did we get to this tipping point and what should we do about it? After the invention of the automobile, development patterns started to form around car mobility leaving little room for pedestrians. The car made it possible to develop along the fringes of cities (suburbs) while offering people a calmer more relaxed way of life surrounded by natural beauty.  Owning a home in the suburbs became a new symbol and measurement of success, and the American dream was established.

Auto-oriented suburban development patterns made us drive more, live more disconnected, and less healthy. Densities became lower, lot sizes increased, and blocks became longer. Cul-de-Sacs, a unique feature of the suburbs, broke the simple interconnected grid system. The functional classification of streets focused on the movement of cars rather than people and suburban developers began omitting sidewalks because it was cheaper. This development pattern created “incomplete” streets and we are now facing the consequences. Florida, a sunbelt state largely suburban and developed after the invention of the car, is currently facing a pedestrian and bicycle fatality crisis. Florida is the most dangerous state for pedestrian and bicycle related deaths. From, 2003 to 2012, 5,189 people died while walking. 63.3% of those deaths were on arterials. The design standards left pedestrians and other methods of transportation out of the process or consideration for street design. Therefore, in Florida, 73.3% of the deaths occurred in roads where the speed limit is 40 mph or higher (Dangerous by Design 2014: Florida).

Reversing the problem caused by incomplete streets has led to a rebirth of street designs. Inner cities are being brought back to life as more people want to move to downtowns to once again be closer to work, and depend less on cars.  Complete street designs are the first step to changing the built environment and it has been proven that investing in public realms has both economic and quality of life benefits.  For example, the complete street redesign of Edgewater Drive in Orlando, which was a four to three lane conversation with bike lanes, center turn lanes, and on street parking for 1.5 miles, dropped collisions by 40% and injuries declined 71%. Additionally, since 2008, 77 new business and 560 new jobs were created.

We are now at a crossroads between changing attitudes of cars, the way we live, and where we choose to live.  While complete streets may not single handedly solve all the issues, it is important to evaluate the public realm and find opportunities to enhance the safety and aesthetics for our streets. RMA’s designers and planners thoroughly analyze the physical qualities of an area to understand the constraints and evaluate opportunities for enhancing the public realm and is committed to creating complete street designs that take in consideration all modes of transportation and people.