How to Address 8 Common Challenges of Complete Streets Design

Transforming an automobile-centric roadway into a place for everyone is great for the community, but can yield growing pains. Here, we share common Complete Streets design challenges and how to solve them. 

Complete Streets policies are good for our transportation network, our health, our environment and our economy. Over 1,200 Complete Streets policies have been implemented nationwide, with over 100 jurisdictions implementing Complete Streets policies in states with SEH offices. So how do you incorporate Complete Streets principles into your street redesign or capital improvement plan or even small maintenance project?

When transitioning new priorities into an often constrained transportation system, you can expect to encounter a few bumps in the road. But don’t worry. Here are a few common challenges and considerations for Complete Streets projects to keep yours running smoothly.

What are “Complete Streets”? Complete Streets refer to a set of principles and policies for the planning, scoping, design, implementation, operation, and maintenance of roads that accommodate the safety and accessibility needs of users of all ages and abilities. Whether for urban, suburban or rural settings, Complete Streets designs consider the needs of everyone – motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and vehicles, as well as commercial and emergency vehicles. Learn more here.

1. Incorporating diverse land uses

Street design and land use are inextricably linked. Naturally, the existing and planned land uses influencing your corridor must be considered when planning and designing your street. Not easy, particularly when your corridor is long and accommodates many different land uses.

Solution: Develop context zones

Analyze your corridor to identify unique aspects of its visual character and associated land uses. Organize it into smaller, more manageable character segments, or context zones, then treat each zone with a unique approach.

Context zones were identified for the Broadway Corridor Study in Rochester, Minnesota — an SEH project that was also used as a case study for a recent Minnesota Department of Transportation workshop, called Complete Streets Workshop – Balancing Priorities and Constraints. The context zones provided a helpful framework for developing potential street cross-sections for the Broadway corridor. Some zones were clearly more suburban. Others, more urban. Each zone received different design treatments and space allocation.

2. Identifying the priorities of a wide mix of users

The automobile received design priority for many streets and corridors in the past. Properly identifying the priorities of a wider mix of users can be difficult. What are the priorities for your corridor? Where is it hard to cross the street or make a left turn? These questions are not easily answered from an office desk.

Solution: Walk with your stakeholders

Data collection and analysis activities both help identify and prioritize needs. Used alone, however, they fall short. Engaging both agency and citizen stakeholders is a key. Walking tours with stakeholders are a great tool to discover and experience key issues first hand. Little compares to the experience of crossing a busy corridor, talking to corridor business owners and watching the interaction of all modes of traffic from the sidewalk.

At SEH, our team took a task force of stakeholders on a walking tour to help develop the Snelling Avenue Multimodal Plan in St. Paul, Minnesota. The tour unearthed ADA challenges and helped prioritize shorter pedestrian crossings of Snelling Avenue over adding continuous on-street bicycle facilities. On-street bicycle facilities would not allow for curb extensions and medians necessary to shorten crossings.

A walking tour with stakeholders in St. Paul, Minnesota, helped identify and prioritize challenges.

3. Eliminating the highway feel

Complete Streets principles define our streets as a shared public space. Streets are more than a conduit for traffic, they serve as the outdoor rooms for our communities. After decades of focus on the movement of cars, however, many streets lack the aesthetic appeal and buffer from traffic necessary for attracting and serving the needs of a wider range of users.

Solution: Add landscape and streetscape elements

Transforming a street to eliminate the “highway feel” can be as simple as adding trees, streetscape furnishings and other plantings. Public art and innovative stormwater treatment are also options. Complete Streets projects provide an opportunity to treat stormwater serving environmental sustainability goals. The 2nd Street project in Rochester, Minnesota, was constructed with several low-impact development stormwater practices — raingardens, a large bioswale median, structural soils and native landscaping — that are not only mutually beneficial for ecology and traffic calming, they enhance the visual quality of the street.

Hastings Way in Eau Claire, Wisconsin was downgraded to a local arterial roadway. The removal of a through lane in each direction, the addition of continuous sidewalk and trail, a landscaped boulevard, and a landscaped pedestrian underpass and plazas eliminate the “highway feel.”
Sustainable landscaping practices on the 2nd Street project in Rochester, Minnesota, were both useful and visually appealing.

4. Increasing walkability

Walking across the street, even at a signalized intersection, can be difficult. Intersections with high turning volumes may have multiple turn lanes or channelized free-flowing lanes. From a pedestrian's standpoint, these lanes increase the crossing distance and exposure to auto traffic.

Solution: Slow motorists, empower pedestrians

One way to increase walkability is to slow down motorists — particularly those in channelized lanes — by using tighter radii or removing channelization completely. You can also improve walkability by increasing pedestrian visibility and shortening crossings with extended curbs, proper ramp placement and median refuges. Empower them at unsignalized locations with pedestrian-activated devices such as Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons.

RELATED CONTENT: City Improves Pedestrian Safety with Promising Technology

5. Keeping cars flowing safely

Making room for all users sometimes means altering facilities and signalization previously designed to keep motorists moving. Signal timing, number of lanes and lane width are common concerns for a Complete Streets effort, particularly when traffic congestion is a concern.

Solution: Reach into the traffic toolbox

A great traffic engineer will know what tools (and how many) you need for your Complete Street. To determine the design and number of auto lanes on a street, they will conduct field reviews and technical analysis of multimodal safety and traffic operations. To address safety and operational issues, they may look for opportunities to add turn lanes at key locations or convert from four lanes to three lanes.

Flexibility in signal phasing is also a key to keeping a Complete Street flowing safely. Flashing yellow arrow traffic signals can help accomplish this. They allow left turns to be protected-only during heavy traffic periods (autos make left turns on green arrow only), permissive-only during very light traffic periods (left turns during a flashing yellow arrow must yield to oncoming traffic), or a combination of protected and permissive during other periods. Special uses of the flashing yellow arrow heads can also include protected pedestrian intervals, during which the permissive left or right turn operation is not allowed for all, or a portion of, the pedestrian crossing interval.

Often, there is room to reduce travel lane width. Space gained in these circumstances can be dedicated to other modes, medians or boulevards, which can assist in calming traffic on corridors where speeding is common.

This Lake Street concept in Minneapolis, Minnesota, (designed by SEH) shows how reduction in number of travel lanes and lane widths results in a wider sidewalk and boulevard, as well as a highly landscaped median. TIP: Plan your own Complete Street and create your own cross-section using this free web-based tool.
Single lane roundabouts were used in the reconstruction of Cascade Avenue through the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. They slow traffic and keep pedestrians safer.

6. Bicyclists feel unsafe

Our busiest streets are busy for a reason. They include key destinations and connections – sometimes across a barrier, such as a highway or waterway. Making room for bicyclists on these corridors can be difficult because riding alongside high volumes of traffic is stressful for most riders. They need more space and protection to feel comfortable. Under higher volume and speed conditions, a six-foot bike lane may serve the “strong and fearless” bicyclist, but more separation is needed to reach a greater percentage of the population.

Solution: Build a bicycle buffer

Use planters, flexible posts, barriers and on-street parking to build protected bikeways (or cycle tracks) and provide bicyclists with physical separation from auto traffic. You can also place a protected bikeway at sidewalk level as long as you provided dedicated space for pedestrians. Facilities like these offer more comfort and security and, as a result, appeal to a wider spectrum of bicyclists.

Both buffered bike lanes and protected bikeways, depending on context, space available and traffic speeds, were included in the preliminary design for the Broadway corridor. To reduce turn conflicts for bicyclists at intersections, treatments include lowering the raised bikeway to street level and shifting the bicycle lane closer to the auto lane for visibility. Also included: traffic signals with leading green phases, designed specifically for bicycles, to help reduce conflicts with turning traffic.

A bicycle signal can separate bicyclist-through movements from auto turning movements for increased safety.

7. Integrating a multi-faceted transit system

Transit has many moving pieces — bus traffic, passengers, loading zones, shelters, benches, signage and more. Many of our streets aren’t complete without transit, but how do you integrate the entire system into your projects?

Solution: Keep both passengers and buses in mind

Remember, every transit trip begins and ends with a pedestrian trip — whether the trip is to a park and ride, along a sidewalk or on a bicycle. So, it’s critical that transit stop designs are as efficient and safe for passengers as they are for the buses. This translates to well-designed stop areas, crosswalks and sidewalk connections that support ridership.

Also, keep in mind that stops on priority transit routes require more amenities — such as shelters, variable message signing, landscaping — which means they need more space within the right-of-way. Plan ahead during the preliminary design process when considering space allocation for amenities and the provision of bays or in-lane passenger loading.

The wait for a bus along 2nd Street in Rochester, Minnesota, is far more pleasant now that there are transit shelters, public art, pedestrian lighting and landscaping with stormwater treatment features.

8. Balancing parking needs with those of other modes

The inclusion of on-street parking is often determined by the context of adjacent land use. That said, proposing any removal or reduction of on-street parking with a project is often perceived as a burden by business and property owners.

Solution: Design parking to boost local business and pedestrian safety

Understanding delivery, customer and employee parking activities along a street, and available alternatives, is crucial. On-street parking supports an urban character and development pattern, providing direct access to corridor businesses and also serves as a buffer from traffic for pedestrians along the sidewalk. Not to mention traffic calming for the adjacent auto lanes. Parking bays can include curb extensions that reduce the crossing distance for pedestrians and increase pedestrian visibility by aligning them with the parking lane.


Here are a few actions taken in Indiana related to developing Complete Streets programs across the state.

In 2010, the Northwest Indiana Regional Plan Commission (NIRPC) Executive Board approved a resolution requiring all new federally-aided roadway projects to consider using Complete Streets design standards.

The City of Indianapolis was recognized by Smart Growth America as having the most exceptional Complete Streets Policy in the United States.

In 2017, the National Complete Streets Coalition partnered with the Michiana Area Council of Governments (MACOG) to develop a new Complete Streets workshop.

The cities that attended the workshop committed to create more bikeable and walkable communities, developing policies with clear guidelines to achieve the objectives.

Each community will create and adopt their own Complete Streets policy, making them part of a movement embraced by more than 1,200 other communities.

Bringing it all together

Every Complete Streets project is different. The important thing is to remember that balancing the trade-offs is a key to including a more diverse range of users on your streets. This often translates to more effort on the front end, but when a project results in streets that better fit their environment and serve multimodal travel, the return on investment makes it well worth it.

About the Author

Heather Kienitz

Heather Kienitz, PE, is a senior traffic engineer, Complete Streets facilitator and advocate for better, safer streets for all users. Contact Heather

*Registered Professional Engineer in MN.

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