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Why your community needs its own Complete Streets design guidelines

August 08, 2017

By Mike Rutkowski

Cities and communities can often chose from a range of existing Complete Streets design guidelines. Here's why doing so is a bad idea.

Many cities and counties are adopting a Complete Streets policy, which is great. It’s a way to direct their transportation planners and engineers to design roadways and corridors with one underlying principal—to ensure the streets are safe for everyone, including pedestrians, drivers, transit users, and bicyclists. I’ve worked with many cities that are forward-thinking when it comes to Complete Streets design. For example, the Country Club Complete Streets Corridor Study for Spartanburg County in South Carolina was named Project of the Year by the Federal Highway Administration and South Carolina American Planning Association (APA) because it provides a solution that supports various user groups, is context-sensitive-specific, and focused on public participation.

Obviously, a good policy is necessary for a Complete Streets initiative and can lead to successful outcomes—but what’s the next level? Design guidelines are key. They will provide physical guidance on how to redesign a street.

Let’s face it, 95 percent of Complete Streets projects are “retrofitting” a problem—an unsafe, economically depressed, or neglected roadway. Guidelines do exist, but they are very limited and one size does not fit all. For those cities that do have guidelines, they typically read with an engineering slant. Individual state Departments of Transportation (DOT) Roadway Manuals and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) currently offer preferred design guidelines. They, too, are limited. There is a need to modify these standards to fit the context and modal needs for a given community and context.

I believe that cities, states, and metropolitan planning organizations need their own Complete Streets design guidelines. Why bother? The context of design is different depending upon where you live, and this is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Northern states have different elements to deal with, like snow removal, frost heaves, and maintenance. Coastal communities must integrate evacuation and resiliency issues. If the individual governing boards do take on the task of defining design guidelines, what’s the benefit?

Design guidelines will provide consistency and reduce the potential for conflicts. As an example, our team developed a Complete Streets Design Manual for the City of Edmonton, Alberta (authored by Ryan Martinson and Tyler Golly). It provides robust, detailed guidance on the building, design features, and context-sensitive environments of city streets, with the interest of balancing the interest and safety of all users.

A thorough design manual can address design treatments in detail, like sidewalk widening, ADA compliant curb ramps, street furniture, crosswalks, tree belt enhancements, sidewalk and roadway surface treatments, pavement markings, speed humps, refuge islands, bump-outs/chokers, street trees, bike boxes, chicanes, bike routes (boulevards, parking, signage), shared lane markings, roadway narrowing, and roundabouts.

By developing guidelines specific to each state or community, we can articulate the many nuances presented in different communities and geographies. This will better define the roles of our city streets and link their impact to larger policy goals. More importantly, it is a way to provide a connection between the considerable public investment in city streets and the long-term health and vitality of our communities. 

  • Mike Rutkowski

    When Mike works on a transportation project, he doesn’t just see a road

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