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No Street Is “Complete” Without Taking Equity Into Account

For 10 years, the National Complete Streets Coalition has scored thousands of “complete streets” proposals from around the U.S. This year, for the first time, they’re including equity and diversity outcomes as part of their grading rubric.

No Street Is “Complete” Without Taking Equity Into Account
[Photo: Oli Kellett/Getty Images]

Weeks ago, on November 19, activists and mourning families in cities around the U.S gathered in public squares for the World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Victims. There, they heard how many people were injured on their city’s streets each month of the year; the names of the dead were read out loud.

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To date, over 18 U.S. cities have joined the Vision Zero initiative–a multi-national effort to bring the number of traffic deaths down to zero through a combination of street-design projects and policy. But still, the number of traffic fatalities keeps rising in the U.S. From 2015 to 2016, the number of pedestrian deaths increased 11% to around 6,000–the biggest-ever single-year increase in pedestrian fatalities. Cyclist deaths are also on the rise.

In response, cities around the U.S. have begun considering and installing upgrades to make their streets safer. They’re adding protected bike lanes to shield cyclists from car traffic; they’re putting up speed cameras to slow drivers down; they’re giving pedestrians longer lights at crosswalks. But those improvements are largely concentrated in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods–and the people most impacted by traffic violence are not. “People of color and older adults are disproportionately impacted by pedestrian fatalities and crashes,” says Emiko Atherton, the director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of Smart Growth America.

[Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images]
Non-white individuals make up 34% of the national population, but 46.1% of pedestrian deaths; people over the age of 65 are 50% more likely to be struck and killed by a car while walking. Incidents of traffic violence are also more prevalent in low-income areas, which also face myriad other obstacles, including subpar transit infrastructure and isolation from resources and the larger community.

Since 2005, NCSC has graded jurisdictions, using a 100-point rubric, on their policies that support streets for “all users of all abilities.” Complete streets, according to NCSC, are those that are accessible and safe for people of all ages and physical abilities, and that accommodate a variety of transit modes–pedestrians, cyclists, mass transit, and standard vehicles. In doing so, complete streets work to advance local economies and create more interconnected neighborhoods and communities.

This year, NCSC has overhauled its framework to encourage planners and jurisdictions to think more in-depth about the equity impact of complete streets projects–and to focus their energy on how they can bring those projects to underserved neighborhoods in a way that both engages with and benefits local residents. “Streets and transit are lifelines for people,” Atherton says. Among urban planners, Smart Growth America and NCSC’s assessment matters quite a bit, and so its change of focus will also have ripple effects throughout the community. “People take the score they get on their proposals very seriously,” Atherton says.

The new NCSC framework includes, for the first time, an equity and diversity measure worth 9 out of the total 100 points. What they’re looking for: policy proposals that specifically prioritize vulnerable users or neighborhoods with a history of disinvestment, which often correlates with a lack of transit options. Furthermore, NCSC is looking for a policy that lays out a specific metric for determining which areas to prioritize, whether it be a section of the city where a certain percentage of the population falls below the poverty threshold, or where a substantial portion of residents lack access to a car.

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The specificity of this new metric is a step forward for NCSC. When NCSC first launched, “we really were looking to get communities and agencies excited about the idea of complete streets,” Atherton says. The concept, especially in our car-dominated cities, was very new, and NCSC saw its work as introducing planners and jurisdictions to the possibility that their streets could do more than just transport cars. In 2005, Atherton says, just 31 out of all the jurisdictions in the U.S. had anything resembling a complete streets proposal, and the average score–based off a 10-part rubric for evaluating everything from the plan’s vision to how well it fit into the existing neighborhood landscape–was 34 out of 100.

Last year, the average score of the complete streets proposals, which are on track to reach 1,300 by the end of 2017, was 80; cities have, through the Smart Growth America network, begun to learn from each other and build off of each others’ plans for street improvements. “While we think this is wonderful, we saw this as an opportunity to raise the bar,” Atherton says. Under the previous version of the NCSC framework, policy proposals won what Atherton calls “easy points” just having a plan that imagines what a complete street in a neighborhood could look like, even if there were no concrete steps for carrying it through. Many of the earlier complete streets proposals, Atherton says, were left stranded in the hypothetical.

[Photo: deberarr/iStock]
Now, even though “the complete streets movement is doing quite well in the philosophical sense,” Atherton says, its physical manifestation has been lackluster. And, as NCSC has realized, the majority of proposed complete streets policies cluster in communities that are whiter and wealthier than the U.S as a whole.

In its new evaluation framework, NCSC doubles down both the equity impact, and emphasizing the importance of concrete implementation plans to ensure that the complete streets policies that jurisdictions propose actually come to fruition–and do so in a way that makes it easier and safer for people to get around where they live.

It’s perhaps instructive that we use the same term–mobility–to describe both transit and economic opportunity. Without the former, the latter is much more difficult to realize. The way jurisdictions design streets have the potential to advance both connectivity and opportunity as well as safety. Traffic-calming initiatives like median strips and speed cameras, as well as street improvements like bike lanes, protected intersections, and wider sidewalks, are known to reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities, but they’re interventions that are often lacking in underserved neighborhoods. Similarly, mobility-supporting infrastructure like a network of better sidewalks and bike lanes could act as a connective force between traditionally underserved neighborhoods and the economic centers of communities.

Complicating the issue is that underserved neighborhoods often push back against complete streets developments in their communities, interpreting them as harbingers of gentrification (there was notorious opposition in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn to bike lanes before they were installed, for instance). NCSC, as part of its recommendations, encourages jurisdictions to get more involved in conversations with communities being considered for complete-streets upgrades. Instead of new infrastructure just being dropped in from above, without any explanation or education, city agencies should talk to residents to get a sense of what they need, and to help them understand that the improvements could actually prove to benefit them.

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That’s what happened in Bed-Stuy, at least: After a couple years of solid community pushback against bike lanes and Citi Bike expansion, the neighborhood suddenly saw a 225% increase in bike trips between 2015 and 2016. What changed was the local neighborhood nonprofit, Bed-Stuy Restoration, partnering with Citi Bike and other New York City agencies to host focus groups and information sessions with residents–most of whom wanted things like a better way to access other neighborhoods, and more opportunities for exercise. Bike lanes offered that; it was just a matter of encouraging people to see how to make the new developments work for them.

Atherton recognizes that the new NCSC evaluation framework will appear, to jurisdictions, as much more rigorous than the one they’ve gotten used to over the past decade. For her, that’s the point. While she anticipates that there might be a handful of jurisdictions who opt out of pursuing complete streets policies because of the more stringent criteria, she hopes that the majority will be motivated to think more rigorously about their proposals–how to implement them, and most importantly, how to apply them to benefit those who have been traditionally underserved by infrastructure and safety measures.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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