How to Address 8 Common Challenges of Complete Streets Design

Complete Streets policies are critical to our communities' transportation networks, health and safety, environment and economies. Yet, transforming roadways into Complete Streets can be complex. Here are eight common Complete Streets challenges and how your community can overcome.

More than 1,600 Complete Streets policies have been implemented across the U.S., including those adopted by 35 state governments. They're on the rise in 2021 and in recent years, but why exactly? One reason is safety. Despite a significant drop in driving in 2020, the U.S. reached a record pace for pedestrian deaths between January and June – according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Community leaders are seeking inclusive, safe and inviting roadways. They want walkable neighborhoods and family-friendly communities, economic development opportunities and accessibility for all walks of life. The challenge: How should you incorporate Complete Streets principles into your street design, capital improvement plan (CIP) or maintenance project? 

As a senior multimodal traffic engineer at SEH, I'm passionate about improving quality of life in the communities we partner with through planning and designing safer, more comfortable and convenient streets for everyone. In addition to a wide variety of Complete Streets projects, I'm also part of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) technical working group which focuses on developing guidance for pedestrian crossing policies. This international membership association of transportation professionals has many groups and committees working diligently to research, develop and share guidance that will improve safety and mobility across all transportation systems and users. 

I've also been fortunate to work alongside like-minded professionals by assisting with the delivery of a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Complete Streets workshop a number of times, walking away from each event with lessons learned from fellow instructors and participants. Through these experiences, I've gained a deep appreciation for the impact Complete Streets have and challenges communities face with implementation.

The following examines eight of these challenges, including practical and long-term solutions to consider as you undertake your Complete Streets efforts. 

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 carefully consider the safety and accessibility needs of users of all ages and abilities. Whether 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 streets. This can be difficult, particularly when your corridor is lengthy 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 (i.e., context zones), then treat each zone with a unique approach.

At SEH, we identified context zones for the Broadway Corridor Study in the City of Rochester, Minnesota – a project that was also used as a case study for a MnDOT workshop called Complete Streets Workshop – Balancing Priorities and Constraints.

The context zones identified for Rochester provided key insight and, ultimately, 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.

Related Content: 10 Ways to Prioritize Your CIP During Economic Uncertainty

2. Identifying the priorities of a diverse mix of users; social equity

While automobiles received design priority for many streets and corridors in the past, many don’t have access or the ability to drive a vehicle. Further, many smaller communities lack quality public transit to serve their residents. Convenient access to reliable transportation is essential for the livelihood and well-being of any community. It's particularly important for underrepresented populations, such as people walking in low-income communities, people of color and older adults. 

These communities typically rely more heavily on public transportation and non-motorized forms of travel, and are disproportionately represented in the number of people killed while walking according to Dangerous by Design 2019, Smart Growth America's three-year report on pedestrian safety. 

Thus, it's incumbent upon transportation professionals and policy makers to develop well-planned, safely executed and comfortable infrastructure for all users. This includes people who require assistive devices such as wheelchairs, pedestrians of all ages and abilities, bicyclists, strollers and scooters. Robust multimodal transportation options can help narrow the equity gap and save lives by providing low-cost and accessible options for commuting to work, getting an education, grocery shopping, accessing healthcare and other basic yet instrumental activities.

Complete Streets Design Guide
The City and County of Denver (CCD) recently released a comprehensive Complete Streets Design Guide. Highlighted above, the document underscores CCD’s goals of addressing historic inequities, reducing the impacts of climate change, decreasing single occupancy vehicle use, reducing urban utility impacts, and supporting economic vitality and healthy living. CCD worked with many partners including consultants Toole Design, StudioCPG and SEH. As prime consultant, SEH managed the team and developed the Utilities section.

Download Complete Streets Design Guide

Solution: Equitable engagement

As explored in our How to Plan and Deliver a Better Engineering Project eBook, “Equitable engagement means fair and impartial, engaging equally with all concerned and impacted." Public engagement is a two-way process undertaken by community and/or project leaders to better understand stakeholder needs, values and goals. The process includes engaging community stakeholders to obtain feedback and buy-in, inform and provide project transparency, generate excitement and ultimately improve your projects. 

Today, transparency is no longer an add-on; it’s a demand and expectation. As a result, traditional community engagement practices often fall short. Equitable engagement recognizes the limits of traditional engagement practices, supplements tried-and-true practices, and features strategies to engage those who have historically been or felt left out of the process.

For engagement to be equitable, it must achieve participation that reflects a community’s entire geography, race/ethnicity, age, gender and/or other demographic characteristics. It should also place specific emphasis on those who will be most impacted by the project, as well as those who are most often diminished in these conversations.

One effective tool to ensure equitable engagement is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) environmental justice (EJ) mapping and screening tool called the EJscreen. This tool is available to the public on the EPA’s website. The EJscreen is a web-based mapping tool used to access high-resolution environmental and demographic information for selected locations of your population. It is based on nationally consistent data and an approach that combines environmental and demographic indicators in maps and reports. This tool empowers users to identify areas with:

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income populations
  • Potential environmental quality issues
  • Combination of environmental/demographic indicators
  • Other relevant factors or ones that may be of interest

In general, the greater impact a project has on underrepresented populations, the higher level of engagement necessary to help ensure that it is implemented in a fair and equitable manner. The EJscreen can help you glean this information.

Due to the disproportionate impacts of pedestrian crashes and greater reliance on alternative transportation for traditionally underrepresented people, safety data, demographic data and gaps in facilities can be used collectively to identify focus areas of compounding issues within a project corridor and help to prioritize investments. SEH has applied this methodology to our current work on the Highway 47/Highway 65 Planning Environmental Linkages Study for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). 

SEH led a walking tour with a diverse mix of stakeholders in the City of St. Paul to help identify and prioritize challenges during creation of the Snelling Avenue Multimodal Plan a couple of years ago. Critical to the project was identifying ADA challenges and prioritizing shorter pedestrian crossings on Snelling Avenue.

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 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 green infrastructure 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 SW Reconstruction project in Rochester 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 but also enhance the visual quality of the street.

Sustainable landscaping practices on the 2nd Street SW Reconstruction project in Rochester created a more vibrant, welcoming and connect area.

4. Increasing walkability

Crossing the street should be efficient, safe and easy. Yet, 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 automobile traffic.

Solution: Slow motorists down, empower your pedestrians

One way to increase walkability is to slow your motorists down – 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: 8 Reasons Your Community Should Invest in Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure

5. Providing for the safe flow of cars

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

Solution: Reach into the traffic toolbox

Great traffic engineers will know what tools you need for your Complete Streets efforts. To determine the design and number of auto lanes on a street, they will conduct field reviews and technical analyses 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 to three lanes.

Flexibility in signal phasing is also key to keeping a Complete Street flowing safely. This includes providing reasonable cycle lengths and phases that avoid excessive delays to cross streets, as well as phases to protect heavier turns where and when needed. Flashing yellow arrow traffic signals can help accomplish this. They allow left turns to be protected-only during heavy traffic periods (for example, automobiles being allowed to make left turn only on green arrows), permissive-only during very light traffic periods (for example, left turns during a flashing yellow arrow must yield to oncoming traffic), or a combination of protected and permissive during other periods.

Signals can also include protected pedestrian and leading 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, green infrastructure, medians or boulevards, which can assist in treating stormwater as well as calming traffic on corridors where speeding is common.

This Lake Street concept for the City of Minneapolis, designed by SEH, illustrates how reducing the number of travel lanes and lane widths can result in a wider sidewalk and boulevard, as well as a highly landscaped median. Useful tool: You can plan your own Complete Street and create your own cross-section using free web-based tool Streetmix.
SEH led the integration of single-lane roundabouts for the reconstruction of Cascade Avenue through the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. These roundabouts reduce traffic delay and slow vehicles down, while providing safer crossings for pedestrians and bicyclists.

6. Improving comfort and safety for bicyclists 

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 6 ft. bike lane may serve the “strong and fearless” cyclist, but more separation is needed to encourage people of all ages and abilities.

Solution: Build a separated bikeway

Use planters, flexible posts, barriers and on-street parking to build separated bikeways (or cycle tracks) and provide bicyclists with physical separation from auto traffic. You can also place a separated 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.

At intersections with separated bikeways, consider protected intersection designs to reduce exposure for bicyclists and improve sightlines. Islands are used to reduce corner radii (and turning vehicle speeds) and provide separate queue spaces for bicyclists and pedestrians. They also set bicyclists back from the motor vehicle lane, making them more visible to turning motorists. Pedestrians also benefit from shorter crossing distances at protected intersections. Traffic signals with protected and leading bicycle phases can help reduce conflicts with heavier volumes of traffic.

Bicycle signals at various intersections along the Capital City Bikeway in St. Paul, Minnesota separate bicyclist-through movements from automobile-turning movements, significantly increasing pedestrian safety.

7. Integrating transit

Transit has many moving pieces. In addition to options for local, express and rapid transit routes, there is also bus traffic, passengers, loading zones, shelters, benches, signage and more to consider. Many of our streets aren’t complete without transit, but how do you integrate the entire system into your Complete Streets projects?

Solution: Keep both passengers and buses in mind

Remember, every transit trip begins and ends with a pedestrian trip – whether the trip is along a sidewalk, on a bicycle or to a park and ride. As such, 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, seating, bike parking, trash/recycling receptacles and required utility boxes – which means they need more space within the right-of-way. Plan ahead by coordinating with the local transit agency during the concept development 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 SW in Rochester 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: Understand use of the curb to best design parking that boosts local businesses and multimodal safety

Understanding delivery, transit, customer and employee parking activities as well as bicycle parking and shared mobility along a street is crucial. At the beginning of a street project, consider conducting a curbside use inventory, parking study and survey of business owners. 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. It also calms traffic 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. In more constrained environments, consider flexible spaces along the curb that can serve different purposes depending upon time of day – daytime parking and loading, peak hour transit-only lanes and late evening ride-share space.

In constrained environments where space is limited for the most vulnerable users of our streets – people walking, biking and rolling – look to cross streets for parking options, shared parking for multiple businesses in adjacent lots and consider district parking, which is a shared parking resource that is managed by a single entity such as a city or parking authority. 

SEH led planning and design for the reconstruction of Highway 61 through the City of Lake City, Minnesota, working closely with the City and MnDOT. The project features a helpful look at a number of "Complete Streets" design concepts, including the conversion a four-lane undivided roadway to a three-lane design – providing significant safety benefits for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. The 1.75-mile project also includes a lakefront multi-use trail, continuous sidewalks, two pedestrian activated crossing flashers and aesthetic enhancements.

Bringing it all together

Every Complete Streets project is unique. The important factor is to remember that balancing the trade-offs is key to being inclusive of a more diverse range of users on your streets. This may translate to more effort in the near term, but the return on investment – economic development opportunities, safety for all and inviting communities, to name just a few of the substantive benefits – is far greater when streets serve people of all ages and abilities, using all modes of travel and a broad range of needs.

Interested in learning more about Complete Streets policies and design concepts, or digging into your challenges and the best routes to solving them? Let's connect!

About the Author

Heather Kienitz

Heather Kienitz, PE*, is a senior multimodal traffic engineer, SEH principal and Complete Streets advocate with 20+ years of experience leading a variety of transportation projects. She is dedicated to developing highly inclusive, safe, context-sensitive solutions for built environments, and is particularly experienced with the retrofit, reconstruction of new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Contact Heather

*Registered Professional Engineer in MN.

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