Complete Streets: Safer Roads for Everyone

Ethan Fawley
Fresh Energy

We tend to take roads for granted. However, when you are not driving, safety challenges are a real concern. There are gaps in the sidewalk network, big roads that are hard to cross, wheelchair barriers, lack of space for bicyclists, and other problems that make it harder to walk, bike, or take the bus. These unsafe conditions have led to the Complete Streets movement.

Complete Streets ensures that roads are built to be safe and accessible for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists, and drivers (all users of the transportation system) regardless of age or ability. It covers kids walking safely to school and keeping seniors active and independent.

In addition to improving safety and accessibility, Complete Streets improves public health and the environment. They promote vibrant communities and support affordable transportation options. They save money when roads are built correctly, instead of needing expensive retrofits after a tragedy occurs. Communities—like North St. Paul—have broadened Complete Streets to include reducing stormwater runoff, achieving further environmental benefits and costs savings.

In some cases, a ‘complete’ street might cost a little more than an unsafe street, but in other cases, using Complete Streets approaches may save money by being more flexible with things like lane widths. Complete Streets maximizes the community benefits of roads at little or no additional overall costs.

Minnesota passed a Complete Streets policy in 2010 that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is working to implement. There are more than twenty local Minnesota communities with Complete Streets policies, placing us second in the country. That includes communities as small as Battle Lake (875 people) and as large as St. Paul.

What does a “complete” street look like?

Complete Streets is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is a way of building roads that takes into account local context and needs. Not every “complete” road will have bike lanes or even sidewalks and rural roads will continue to look different from urban streets. You will see more sidewalks, safe crossing points, paved rural shoulders, curbs that are accessible for people in wheelchairs or with hearing disabilities, and bike lanes.

A portion of Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis is a good “complete” street example. Engineers realized that they did not need four lanes for traffic. So, they reduced it to three lanes—one lane in each direction with a center lane for left turns—greatly improving safety for everyone. They developed wider sidewalks and added “bump outs” to calm traffic, making it easier to cross the street. Bike lanes were not included at that time—an oversight—but may be added soon since bike lanes have been added to a nearby section. These changes were made at little additional cost by creatively rethinking the available space. The results have not just made the road safer, but have also made the area more attractive.

Get involved

Every Complete Streets policy starts with a single champion. The Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition can help you be that champion in your community (see the resources box). If your local neighborhood is more your interest, contact your local elected official or city engineering department and ask them how to make it safer. If an answer does not make sense, have them explain it. Road engineering is technical, but anyone can make a difference.

Read Up
  • Complete Streets Local Advocates Toolkit, Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition, 2010. Available for free:
  • Guide to Complete Streets Campaign, Alliance for Biking and Walking, 2010.
Act Locally
  • Ethan Fawley
    Fresh Energy and
    MN Complete Streets Coalition
  • Stefanie Seskin
    National Complete Streets Coalition
Safer Roads for Everyone

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