Photo: Memphis Medical District Collaborative.

Many plans are intended to support multimodal mobility but a truly complete street goes beyond that.

Everything, from state transportation department guidelines to hyper-local initiatives, is included in the Complete Streets movement, which started in the early 2000s. Indeed, Smart Growth America's 2017 list of the best complete streets initiatives is featured in Florida's department of transportation design manual, a downtown master plan for Las Cruces, New Mexico and Warsaw, Missouri's riverfront trails, among others. 

Here in Houston, the planning department releases an annual progress report following the 2013 executive order from then-Mayor Annise Parker to develop a Complete Streets and Transportation Plan. The four-page report for 2017 included details on the city-approved but far-from-fully-funded Bicycle Master Plan, several studies, a handful of amendments made to the Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan and the launch of Metro's long-term planning process, MetroNext, as well as other transit-related efforts across the city. While all of these things relate to the mobility of the region, it doesn't shed much light on how much progress has been made toward creating complete streets across the city. The report includes a handful of metrics, including miles of new or reconstructed sidewalks and new or reconstructed transit stops with shelters, but a sense of the overall strategy and coordination of these things is hard to derive from the high-level numbers.

Given the big umbrella of the phrase complete streets, what does a complete street really look like, particularly in cities known for developing around the automobile?

Back in 2011, the Project for Public Spaces took on the question, arguing that "...engineers can ruin a good street, but they cannot create a good street -- a street that is truly complete -- through engineering alone. A small but growing group of communities have recognized that to really “complete their streets,” they need genuinely place-based and community-based transportation policies that go beyond routine accommodation." Creating space for pedestrians, bicyclists, buses, cars and more users is just the start of the process. Three rules should guide the creation of complete streets, according to the Project for Public Spaces: think of streets as public spaces, plan for community outcomes and design for appropriate speeds.

Smart Growth America also produced its own sets of recommended metrics to gauge the success of complete street policies at both the project- and network-level back in 2015. Some are intuitive, like measuring the number of bike trips taken, particularly by various demographic groups, others are likely less common, like tracking the particulate matter along a project or tallying the number of wildlife crossings.

In a recent roundup of street redesign projects from 2018, Streetsblog USA writer Angie Schmitt highlighted several examples that embody many of the complete street standards. There's Manassas Street in Memphis' medical district with its protected bike lanes and generous pedestrian crosswalks that are eye-catching and safety-enhancing, plus 70 self-watering planters. And Broad Street in Atlanta, which finally got a car-free segment in 2018 as part of an ongoing effort to attract pedestrian traffic to the commercial district. 

Other examples of recent, thoughtful street redesigns include Raleigh, North Carolina's downtown Fayetteville Street. Recognized by the American Planning Association, the corridor has been through several iterations, including in 1977 when the street was closed to car traffic as part of "a growing nationwide trend at the time" to create pedestrian plazas. But it suffered because of its downtown location, emptying out after business hours, according to the association. Today, after reconstruction, it is a "center of downtown activity," with "the widest sidewalks in the downtown, ample seating, street trees, and colorfully painted stone street pavers at intersections." It's also notable as a site of connection and mixed uses. The association notes the mix of businesses, senior housing and event programming as well as the nearby library, park, Amtrak station and more.

Another APA-recognized redesign along Fort Worth, Texas' West Magnolia Avenue involved "right-sizing" or reducing the number of car lanes to, in part, make room for bike lanes. Also in a medical district, the street's updating included new crosswalks and traffic calming measures.

But many of these blockbuster projects raise other questions about how complete these streets really are. In the 2015 Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices and Possibilities, Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman argued that much of the Complete Streets rhetoric, focused on built environment features and abstract "users," flattens the "social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities" of street spaces. To that end, many of the changes championed by complete streets rhetoric can be linked to concerns about gentrification and unequal access to public space.

Though they argued that many contemporary examples of complete streets failed to engage with these realities, the authors contend that streets as public spaces can still be sites of engagement and empowerment if conceptualized more inclusively. In short, they write, "...emphases on Complete Streets and livability in city planning and municipal governance will not necessarily result in equitable outcomes without advocates in public agencies being willing to reinvent the ways we think about equity in planning processes and practices."