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Complete Streets Flourishing in Washington

Complete Streets Flourishing in Washington

Image courtesy of /Adam Coppola Photography

Communities around the country have long taken steps to provide infrastructure for biking, walking, and taking transit, recognizing the benefits they provide towards promoting health, safety, and sustainability. Along with integrated land use and transportation planning, lower carbon fuels, and advanced technology vehicles, complete streets is a key strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

As of 2021, approximately 1,533 jurisdictions, dozens of which are in Washington State, had adopted complete streets programs, policies, and implementation measures. Locally, implementation of complete streets concepts will continue increasing over the coming months and years, in part due to new legislation in 2022 that requires the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to incorporate these concepts into certain state projects. This blog includes examples of complete streets programs and describes this new state legislation.

What Are Complete Streets?

According to Smart Growth America,

Complete Streets is an approach to planning, designing, and building streets that enables safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities.

The complete streets movement emphasizes the needs of those who have experienced underinvestment or whose needs haven’t been met through a traditional transportation approach (e.g., older adults, people living with disabilities, and people who don’t own cars).

Not all complete streets look the same due to local context and needs — a city center will include different solutions than a rural community. Features like sidewalks, bike lanes, special bus lanes, transit stops, crosswalks, accessible pedestrian signals, curb extensions, narrower travel lanes, and more may be integrated into existing or new streets as means of implementing a local complete streets program. The development of any local policy should start by analyzing local data, reviewing existing plans, and engaging the public and relevant departments (e.g., public works, fire, planning) to help identify needs and strategies for addressing those needs.

Complete streets provide many benefits, including reduced fatal and serious crashes for all road users, accessibility, health, and economic vitality. Some may be surprised to learn that complete streets are also more effective for mobility. Many more people can be moved per hour per square foot if they are walking or bicycling than if they are driving, but because walking and bicycling take up so little space, they tend to fade to the background of people’s perception, which is dominated by seeing the space occupied by a lineup of cars. When a street is complete, people have the freedom to choose the form of transportation that makes sense for the trip they are taking, and they can use it safely and with dignity.

Local Examples

Complete streets isn’t a new concept in Washington State. In 2011, the state legislature passed the Complete Streets Act (RCW 47.04.320-.340), which encourages local governments to adopt complete streets ordinances.

RCW 47.04.320 establishes a grant program to help cities, towns, and counties pay for complete streets projects. To be eligible for a grant, RCW 47.04.320(2)(b) requires local governments to adopt a jurisdiction-wide complete streets ordinance.

To respond to this grant opportunity and to support community goals around active transportation and the community benefits that come with it, examples of complete streets programs can be found in large and small communities from all corners of the state. Below are excerpts from some of these programs, with a focus on purpose statements, equity considerations, and implementation strategies.

Purpose statements

Purpose statements can take a variety of forms, but most identify a broader policy vision, as well as users. Arlington's Complete Streets Policy clearly identifies the purpose of the program, which is to:

(C)reate a true multimodal transportation network that is designed and operated to be safe, comfortable, and convenient for all users… Complete Streets is also about transforming streets into environments that provide for a sense of belonging and engagement and ultimately creating a more livable community.

In addition to pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, and motorists, Ocean Shores’ purpose statement notes that appropriate facilities should also be planned for emergency responders and freight. The Airway Heights' Complete Streets Chapter notes that its purpose “…is to help achieve the goals and objectives of the transportation, land use and parks and recreation element of the city’s comprehensive plan.”

Equity considerations

As the goal of the complete streets movement is to provide appropriate accommodations for people of all ages and abilities, some communities articulate how equity will be woven into their transportation project prioritization frameworks.

Arlington's Complete Street Policy includes a section on economic and equity considerations, noting that the city examined census data based on income, poverty, and race in an effort to prioritize projects in areas of lower-income and underserved populations.

Wenatchee’s Complete Street Policy notes that the implementation of complete streets will occur through the completion of a pedestrian master plan that incorporates the Americans with Disabilities Act Transition Plan, which includes prioritization criteria that considers aspects such as proximity to social services, public transit, health equity, safe routes to school, and more.

Low-income housing, social services, and public transit needs were weighted heavily in the project prioritization process for Bellingham’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans, which are referenced in its Complete Network Ordinance.

Implementation strategies         

Implementation of complete streets policies includes a whole host of actions, including identifying funding sources, educating staff and the public, and amending any related plans and policies, like comprehensive plans.

Spokane's Complete Streets Chapter notes that implementation of various complete streets components should include the latest and best design criteria — as well as a context sensitive approach — with the analysis of existing conditions and needs.

According to Battle Ground's Complete Streets webpage, the city funded some initial projects through a grant by the Clark County Public Health Department and WSDOT’s Pedestrian & Bicycle Grant Program.

Wenatchee identifies endorsing organizations and financial supporters on its Complete Streets webpage. Funding sources include the city’s annual funding allocation and staff time, the Transportation Improvement Board (TIB), and Safe Routes to School.

Lastly, Deer Park’s Complete Streets Chapter states that implementation may be achieved through single projects or incrementally through a series of smaller improvements or maintenance activities over time.

New State Support

In 2022, the Washington State Legislature passed the Move Ahead Washington package (ESSB 5974). The legislation included a complete streets requirement directing WSDOT to “improve the safety, mobility, and accessibility of state highways” through the incorporation of complete streets principles. This applies to state transportation projects over $500,000 that started design on or after July 1, 2022.

WSDOT’s policies for implementation of the new requirement can be found in the Complete Streets Project Delivery Memo and more information is available on their Complete Streets webpage. The Safe System Approach is fundamental to the implementation of the complete streets requirement for state transportation projects.

The Safe System Approach focuses on the design and operation of the roadway so that all road users are treated equitably and that the design and operation of roads can be developed to reduce fatalities and serious injuries by addressing Safe System principles, recognizing that injuries occur when crash forces are greater than a human can tolerate.

The complete streets requirement creates the opportunity for the types of changes on state highways that many communities have requested, and WSDOT is committed to collaborating with communities to make these changes, understanding that different solutions will work in different places. In some places this may mean redesigning how an existing transportation facility functions (to meet the needs of all travelers) or it may result in adding separate facilities for people walking or bicycling while maintaining high speeds for vehicle traffic. WSDOT looks forward to collaborating with local agencies across the state during the planning, design, and construction of state transportation projects that will directly benefit local communities.

Helpful Links

See these links for additional information:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Celeste Gilman

About Celeste Gilman

Celeste is the Transportation and Land Use Policy Advisor with the WSDOT Multimodal Planning and Data Division. She leads strategic efforts within the agency to work with partners across the state to utilize land use as a tool to manage transportation demand. She also serves as the Deputy Director of the Regional Transit Coordination Division, working with transit agencies and cities and bringing planners and engineers together to expand high-capacity transit and multimodal station access. Prior to joining WSDOT, Celeste led the University of Washington's award-winning sustainable transportation programs, served as the chair of the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board, and has been a contributor to numerous transit advisory groups.
Photo of Lisa Pool

About Lisa Pool

Lisa Pool joined MRSC in June 2021. Most recently, she served as a senior planner for Bellingham. In this role, she primarily focused on long-range planning projects, including the city’s comprehensive plan and new housing-related regulations. Prior to moving to Bellingham, she worked on regional sustainability and transportation issues for a metropolitan planning organization and conducted development review for cities and counties in the Midwest.

Lisa holds a Bachelor of Arts in environmental policy and a Master of Urban Planning, both from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2009.