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May 16, 2024

The Power of Complete Streets Mandates

By: Martina Haggerty, senior director of local innovation

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Explore the crucial role of Complete Streets mandates in creating great bike networks as part of our blog series, "A Legislative Playbook to Build More Bikeable Communities.”

Featured image: Efforts like these separated bike lanes in Inman Square helped Cambridge meet the requirements of their Cycling Safety Ordinance, which demands the creation of such lanes. (Photo credit: Jonathan Berk)

Throughout this blog series, we dive into the legislative arm of The Great Bike Infrastructure Project, exploring policies — like Complete Streets mandates — that accelerate the construction of bike infrastructure while also highlighting states and municipalities that are successfully putting these policies into action. PeopleForBikes’ Legislative Guide for Safe and Connected Bike Infrastructure is a valuable resource, showcasing the most effective ways to advance bike infrastructure through state and local legislation. 

What are Complete Streets?

Complete Streets is an approach to road design that meets the needs of all road users: people walking, biking, rolling, using public transit, and driving. Imagine a streetscape with well-maintained sidewalks, safe street crossings, physically protected bike lanes, comfortable and accessible transit stops, street trees, landscaping, and traffic-calming measures that prevent drivers from speeding. It's a holistic vision that transforms streets into comfortable, livable, and inclusive spaces.

To ensure streets reflect these principles, communities and state agencies across the country are adopting Complete Streets mandates. So what are Complete Streets mandates? While some policies can be vague and lead to less certain outcomes, Complete Streets mandates provide a legal foundation, ensuring the principles are applied consistently across all projects. We’ve all seen well-meaning policies that ask transportation departments or local planning offices to “consider the needs” of people walking, biking, and taking transit. Unfortunately, without clear requirements, these policies usually end up collecting dust on a shelf. Complete Streets mandates, on the other hand, ensure that every road construction or renovation project incorporates safe infrastructure for all road users. Successful mandates boast clear project selection criteria, limited exceptions, strong design requirements, transparent reporting mechanisms, and prioritize underrepresented communities to improve transportation equity.

The Benefits of Complete Streets Mandates

Complete Streets mandates have far-reaching impacts on communities, ranging from improved safety for all transportation modes to positive economic returns. 

  • Road Safety — By prioritizing safety over speed, incorporating protected bike lanes or road-adjacent trails, and accommodating pedestrian safety improvements, Complete Streets mandates play a pivotal role in addressing the growing road safety crisis in the U.S.
  • Transportation Equity Complete Streets mandates are a powerful strategy for enhancing equity in transportation planning. When done well, these mandates prioritize infrastructure investments in underserved communities, helping meet the needs of people who do not or cannot drive by increasing affordable transportation access to jobs, essential services, recreational opportunities, and more. 
  • Economic Benefits Contrary to common misconceptions, Complete Streets projects tend to be less expensive than traditional road construction projects and deliver more benefits. Well-designed Complete Streets projects also contribute to economic vitality by boosting retail sales, creating jobs, reducing healthcare costs, and more.
  • Public Health Complete Streets mandates promote physical activity and improve overall health. By creating walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, these mandates contribute to healthier communities and a more sustainable healthcare system.

Learn more about these benefits in our Supplemental Guide for Complete Streets Mandates, which includes data-backed talking points to help you advocate for change in your community. 

Complete Streets Mandates in Action 

Approaches for adopting Complete Streets mandates vary from community to community and state to state, ranging from ballot measures to city council-approved ordinances to department-issued directives. These examples provide tangible evidence of the benefits and feasibility of implementing Complete Streets mandates, offering insights into successful strategies, potential challenges, and best practices. By studying examples from other agencies, policymakers and advocates can tailor their own initiatives to local needs and circumstances. 

Cambridge’s Cycling Safety Ordinance

In 2019, the Cambridge City Council in Massachusetts approved the Cycling Safety Ordinance, mandating the creation of separated bike lanes on specific streets during street reconstructions. In 2020, amendments to the ordinance set specific timelines and mileage goals. Thanks to the ordinance, Cambridge achieved one of the most significant increases in our City Ratings program, soaring from a score of 31 in 2018 to an impressive 58 in 2023. To measure compliance, each year, the city must submit a progress report to the city council outlining its achievement in bike infrastructure.

MassDOT’s Controlling Criteria

Building upon their Healthy Transportation Policy and Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) introduced a new statewide directive to enhance accessibility and safety in 2020. This directive includes three new "controlling criteria" that ensure all state-managed road reconstruction projects (as well as municipal-led projects that use state funding) include ADA-accessible pedestrian facilities, high-quality bikeways, bus shelters, crosswalks, and transit-priority infrastructure along significant transit routes. Specifically, it requires the construction of bike infrastructure on most state-controlled roads where bikes are permitted by law. Furthermore, separation from vehicular traffic is required on roads with speed limits of 40 mph or higher, volumes of 10,000 or more vehicles per hour, multiple travel lanes in one direction, or those identified as having a high potential for everyday biking. Minimum width requirements for bike lanes are also stipulated.

To facilitate the implementation of these criteria, MassDOT also streamlined internal processes. Complete Streets staff are now involved earlier in project development, providing feedback during the project initiation, scoping, and 25% design stages. These measures underscore MassDOT's commitment to creating safer, more accessible, and sustainable transportation infrastructure across the state.

Measure HLA in Los Angeles

In March, nearly two-thirds of Los Angeles voters approved Measure HLA, requiring the city to implement street modifications outlined in its Mobility Plan 2035 whenever street improvements, such as repaving, are made. The city’s Mobility Plan, approved in 2015, regrettably lacked a concrete implementation strategy, an issue that Measure HLA remedies. Once implemented, the plan will improve sidewalks and crosswalks, reduce cut-through traffic on neighborhood streets, improve transit service and stops, create a robust protected bike lane network, and improve traffic flow on critical streets.


California Senate Bill 960

In 2019, the California Bicycle Coalition and California State Senator Scott Wiener advocated for the Complete Streets for Active Living Bill, aiming to require the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to implement its Complete Streets policy. Despite passing the legislature, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, citing Caltrans' existing Complete Streets policy as sufficient. Advocates disagreed. 

Citing a lack of progress, advocates and elected officials, led once again by the California Bicycle Coalition and Senator Wiener, introduced SB 960. If passed, SB 960 will make Caltrans' Complete Streets policy a legal requirement, mandating that all road rehabilitation projects incorporate comfortable, convenient, and connected facilities for people walking, biking, and using public transit. Notably, the bill prioritizes underserved communities, including low-income neighborhoods and communities of color which often lack safe infrastructure, streamlines Caltrans' approval process for Complete Streets projects, establishes clear targets and performance metrics, and minimizes exemptions.

To learn more about these examples and case studies from other cities and states, as well as how you can translate them into legislation for your community:

Complete Streets mandates are not just about roads, they're about transforming communities into safer, more equitable, economically vibrant spaces. By understanding and championing Complete Streets principles, we can create a future where everyone can move safely and more people can get where they need to go by bike.

Join our email list to ensure you don’t miss subsequent posts in this blog series, where we’ll provide in-depth insights into advancing bike infrastructure through climate legislation and creating safer streets through speed limits, design guidelines, and intersection improvements.

Related Topics:

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