What is a “complete street” and why is it important?

Developing complete streets provide for a variety of users to coexist in an efficient and safe manner in the public right-of-way.

A complete street is a street that is designed for all users. Effective complete streets allow the orderly and efficient movement of people and goods through a variety of modes, from walking to cycling to driving to riding mass transit. A complete street is a different way to think about how we move people and goods within the public-right-of-way, especially in Michigan.

So, why are they important? Well first, a new state law, Public Act 135 of 2010 was enacted and it required communities receiving transportation dollars from the state to plan for complete streets. So, there is a financial incentive to develop these streets for all users. But the answer to their importance is much more than a state allocation for transportation dollars. The more important reason is the need to develop more vibrant, more sustainable communities. Supporters of complete streets believe that they will improve safety, create healthy choices for adjacent residents and support a greener lifestyle.

Traditionally in Michigan, transportation planners have focused on the orderly and efficient movement of vehicles. In the State’s large urban areas transits systems were developed and included in the transportation infrastructure and planning. However, some will debate the historical planning for pedestrians, children, bicyclist and people of various abilities.

However, planners supporting sustainable communities are arguing for increased densities, adaptive reuse of urban spaces and more creative places that will attract talented smart entrepreneurs who will create the jobs of tomorrow. So there it is – complete streets are important because they will not only support healthy lifestyles but will be needed to create viable, economically-sustainable communities. Successful communities have vibrant streets that are used by a variety of users.

This may be the chicken and egg scenario. But if authors like Richard Florida who describes the creative class in his book “Rise of the Creative Class: And how it’s Transforming Work” are correct; the drivers of the new economy are people who are drawn to places that are walkable, diverse and interesting. As described by the Michigan Municipal League, the young professionals as well as the baby boomers and the empty nesters are seeking places that have walkable downtowns, access to cultural, social and entertainment opportunities as well as a variety of transportation options.

The blending of a variety of uses, lifestyles and social and cultural options should inspire transportation planners to think more seriously about complete streets designed to accommodate all the different users. Their role in moving people and goods will become more important for the financially successful communities that will attract the job creators of tomorrow.

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