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Co-opting Complete Streets

The idea of a Complete Street is compelling in almost every way, but when the engineering profession begins to adopt it wholesale, we need to pause and look at the outcomes. Are we getting Complete Streets, or are we getting Complete Roads. The difference is tremendous and will impact the financial viability of an approach to building places that is long overdue.

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The Complete Streets concept is one that is long overdue. We've spent two generations transforming a public realm once comprised of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods into auto-only zones. These are places where the kids used to play ball in the street. Today a kid can't even play safely in their own front yard.

At Strong Towns, we've worked to illuminate the fact that this transformation has been done at tremendous financial cost. This is not only because the construction of wider, flatter and straighter streets has been expensive, but because the auto-centric nature of the transformed public realm drives private-sector investment out of traditional neighborhoods, dislocating it to places that provide more buffering to the car.

Not only that, but the redevelopment that has happened in these neighborhoods has largely been on a suburban framework, using the parking ratios, setbacks and coverage restrictions of modern zoning to reduce density (and the rate of return). Financially, these places are largely insolvent, lacking the tax base to maintain their basic infrastructure.

Enter the concept of a Complete Street. To me, the fundamental contribution of Complete Streets to the discourse surrounding the future of our towns and neighborhoods is the recognition that our streets must serve more than just cars and that the public realm can no longer be an auto-only zone. The fact that the Complete Streets model has broken the stranglehold that the auto-only design mentality has had on our streets should be the cause of unending rejoice.

In March I was able to have dinner with Kaid Benfield. During the course of our conversation, he enlightened me on how the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards were tweaked with Neighborhood Design principles. The result, LEED-ND, takes a great concept -- buildings that are energy efficient and environmentally friendly -- and overlays it on a development framework that reinforces these principles. In other words, no more "green" buildings in the middle of a greenfield, with 30 mile commutes each way.

In a similar vein, we're going to now, humbly, suggest a way in which the Complete Streets concept can evolve to achieve what I believe is its principle intent, that being Complete Neighborhoods. 

I've now seen two projects where engineers promoted the use of "complete streets". In each I see the engineering profession co-opting the Complete Streets moniker without any thought to a Complete Neighborhood. For the engineers on these projects, the approach remains the same. I'll quote from our piece, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer:

An engineer designing a street or road prioritizes the world in this way, no matter how they are instructed: 

  1. Traffic speed
  2. Traffic volume
  3. Safety
  4. Cost

The rest of the world generally would prioritize things differently, as follows: 

  1. Safety
  2. Cost
  3. Traffic volume
  4. Traffic speed

In other words, the engineer first assumes that all traffic must travel at speed. Given that speed, all roads and streets are then designed to handle a projected volume. Once those parameters are set, only then does an engineer look at mitigating for safety and, finally, how to reduce the overall cost (which at that point is nearly always ridiculously expensive).

One of the places I've seen Complete Streets applied is My Hometown's Last Great Old Economy Project (also known as the College Drive project). In this instance, the design starts with a minimum design speed and a projected traffic volume, the latter being the stated impetus for the project. This analysis provides us with four lanes of fast-moving traffic. The engineers then move on to the "safety" criteria and the mandate that -- if we can afford it -- we accommodate bikes and pedestrians. This is done, of course, at tremendous cost - estimated at over $7 million for a mile of road.

Now notice that I called this route a "road" and not a "street". Understanding the difference between a road and a street is critical to understanding the problem we have with engineers misusing the Complete Streets approach. From our Placemaking Principles for a Strong Town:

To build an affordable transportation system, a Strong Town utilizes roads to move traffic safely at high speeds outside of neighborhoods and urban areas. Within neighborhoods and urban areas, a Strong Town uses complex streets to equally accommodate the full range of transportation options available to residents.

Roads move cars at high speeds. Streets move cars at very slow speeds. We should build roads outside of neighborhoods, connecting communities across distances. We should build streets within neighborhoods where there are homes, businesses and other destinations. The auto-road is a post-WW II replacement of the rail-road. The street should be what it has always been; the street.

The fundamental design flaw of the post WW II development pattern -- the false premise upon which every other design tragedy has been committed -- is the transformation of our streets into roads.

High speed auto travel has no place in urban areas where the cost of development demands a complex neighborhood pattern with a mixing of uses, multiple modes of travel and a public realm that enhances the value of the adjacent properties. High speed traffic destroys value in our neighborhoods. It drives out investment. There is no amount of pedestrian enhancement that we can build to offset the negative response people have to being in the close proximity of speeding traffic.

Without aggressive traffic calming -- which is part of the Complete Streets playbook -- we will simply be building Complete Roads. A Complete Road will not transform the public realm, no matter how much money we put into accommodating pedestrians and bikers with bridges and tunnels. A Complete Road will not attract significant private-sector investment in the key neighborhoods where we have so much existing infrastructure liability. And a Complete Road will cost a fortune, without changing the insolvency problem facing our cities.

If there is one thing our current financial situation should teach us about the engineering profession it is this: engineers will bankrupt us if given the chance to build our cities and towns the way they envision them. It is predictable that the engineering profession will embrace the concept of a Complete Road -- which is nothing more than a bad design made PC by throwing an expensive bone to bikers and pedestrians -- because it fits with their hierarchy of values (speed, volume, safety and then cost). Insidiously, promoting Complete Roads will ensure them more funding than they would otherwise receive. You can call them "streets" all you want - unchecked, they are going to build "roads". (For example, check out the 14-foot highway lane widths on the Complete "Street" cross section on My Hometown's Last Great Old Economy Project).

We love Complete Streets. They are essential to a Strong Town. Let's get out there and build them, but make sure the engineers don't con you into a Complete Road. Demand slow cars and a Complete Neighborhood to go along with your Complete Street.

Additional Reading


Earlier this year we started collecting donations to cover the cost of producing a DVD version of the Curbside Chat. Our goal was to connect with 100 of our readers that would be willing to donate $25 each. We've taken quite a bite out of this so far -- we've signed up 35 -- but we still have a ways to go. If you value what you read here or what we produce in our podcast, please do what you can to help us spread this message. We thank you, especially if you are one of our 880+ Facebook connections! It was only a year ago we were still below 200. Thanks for spreading the word. 


Further discussion on consolidation

Last Monday we posted a piece called Consolidation is the wrong response, which was (as with all our Monday posts) also cross-posted on the New Urban Network site. The post generated a lot of substantive discussion and, in the spirit of all of us learning together, I wanted to take the opportunity now to comment on those comments. On this issue, as with most others, I welcome the free and respectful exchange of ideas, with the ability to disagree in a thoughtful way. 

Consolidation of units of local government may seem to increase efficiency by reducing duplication and taking advantage of economies of scale. But scholars have long been puzzled by the counter-intuitive data that show that areas with fragmented governments seem to have lower overall costs of public services. Oakerson (Governing Local Public Economies) notes that smaller governments can take advantage of diverse economies of scale through joint purchasing or consolidating some functions like IT, and achieve most of the benefits of economies of scale without the bureaucracy of a large organization.

A strong driver of the observed higher costs in consolidated (larger) governments is the phenomenon--pervasive in the public sector--of higher overall wage rates with larger organizations. In a consolidation of five feeder elementary districts with the high school district, this fact caused--to the proponents' surprise--a $1 million/year increase in the cost of the consolidated district compared to the sum of the costs of the six smaller districts.


The book Scott refers to by Oakerson can be read for free online or can be ordered from Amazon.

I think Scott makes some great points. I would add to this what has been called the "expert problem", or the over reliance on experts. With consolidation, you get a much larger system and a much smaller group of experts capable of running it (thus the higher salaries). The larger system is, by definition, more difficult it is to manage and change. This forces us to rely on experts, who may or may not actually know what they are doing. In fact, when the "experts" are all trained in the same way and employ the same "industry norm" approaches in their larger communities, any problems or fragilities are magnified. We all become brittle to the same things at the same time.

I also sense that the large systems and their reliance on experts -- which is really another way of saying that they create separation between the public officials and the actual decisions that are made -- is one of the reasons why consolidation does not really lead to workforce reduction or sustained cost savings. My experience has been that experts tend to want more supporting staff, better systems, etc... Sometimes there is a benefit, but often not. But how is anyone to know - they are the "expert" after all.

The expert problem is explored in depth in a book called The Invisible Gorilla: and other ways our intuitions deceive us. In that book it is called the "illusion of knowledge". 

Rather than waving our hands in the air and arguing for fragmentation of local governance as a solution, and innovation as some vague pie in the sky solution that may one day pop up...why not consider that there IS tremendous inefficiency in metro areas.  Having 43 cities all with the same redundant capital and salary systems - 43 GIS systems, 43 building code tracking systems, etc., is dumb and wasteful.

From a land use perspective, we have a spatial mismatch between land use and transportation system plans and authority. Portland Oregon has Metro - and they have coordinated land use and transportation planning in a way that has reduced VMTs, GHG and protected the environment. How? Because land use and transportation is coordinated and consolidated at the regional level.  It has created very livable - transit supportive communities


I concur with Bob that it is pretty hard to have innovation today in our current municipal structure. But if we agree on the need for innovation, the question then becomes: how best to achieve it? I would suggest that removing the mandates and restrictions on municipalities would be an essential first step. Establishing a system to monitor and report on results would be a second. A mechanism that rewards success and provides a path for correcting mistakes would be the third.

A local-centric approach will be inefficient -- just like the local hardware store, grocer, baker and butcher are inefficient when compared to Wal-Mart -- but, if we can establish the right system, what you lose in efficiency you can gain back in innovation and resilience.

This is the mechanism behind natural evolution. Species adapt and respond differently to stresses. The most successful survive to pass on their genetic material. Over time, very complex and resilient systems form organically through this process. The natural world around us is a product of that.

What we struggle with as humans is an inability to allow failure. We do everything we can to prevent it, especially within government systems. We need to find a way to embrace failure and learn from it. Our systems should not be fragile to stress as they are now -- they should actually grow stronger from it. 

To put it bluntly, a city needs to have a consolidated urbanized area, or be unconsolidated to the point the core is effectively its own city--the most consolidated cities in the country, in the Sunbelt, were the ones which were most successful in the past half-century--or at least the ability to undertake consolidated transportation planning (Boston and San Francisco are good examples of this: highly unconsolidated metropolitan areas with highly consolidated transportation networks). There is no in between--Australian cities, contrary to Eurasian cities, work because of their lack of consolidation. Most American cities are only half consolidated, and so paths to their success would seem to either involve shedding unsuccessful sections of the urban area, leaving only the core, or consolidating to the entire urbanized area, allowing for superior growth management (read: the imposition of a single zoning code across the urban area). Our political networks date from a different era, and are optimized to different needs--which is where the problem really stems from.

- Steve

I think Steve makes a valid overall point here. In Minnesota, we have cities and townships. Often the cities are the core land area around the old railroad stop and the township is everything else in the six mile by six mile grid. We've given townships nearly the same abilities as cities to zone and grant land use approvals. This creates some very perverse incentives where a business can locate just outside of town, have the same police and fire service as someone paying taxes inside of town, but have a fraction of the cost. This is bad policy.

Our cities need to be urban and our countryside needs to be rural. This goes for large metropolitan areas as well as small towns.

I would support consolidation of individual cities with their surrounding townships in cases where these perverse incentives exist. 

I do not disagree that innovation is needed but is not consolidation one form of innovation?  Is it not innovative to take 7 small communities with 7 police chiefs, 7 deputy chiefs and consolidate into one larger, more efficient department? One chief, one deputy chief and a supervisor who can watch more than 2 officers. Consolidation is not always bad.


I guess you could say that consolidation is a form of innovation, it just doesn't seem like the kind of innovation we need. Bringing two cities together as one is going to provide some near-term cash flow advantages, but that will only put off any substantive land use reform, infrastructure reform, budget reform or any of the myriad of reforms we need to see right now.

As an example, our biggest problem at the local level is a nationwide, homogeneous approach to development that has come to dominate the market at every level by providing near-term cash flow advantages in exchange for significantly greater long-term financial liabilities. The system of delivery of this development pattern -- from the zoning to the financing to the transportation to the environmental reviews to the government programs -- is extremely efficient. That is why it has become, with few exceptions, the sole development approach in the country.

We can try and fight at the federal level to force a new option on people, but what is to say that would not be just as bad? 

To me consolidation just puts off the inevitable reforms that need to happen while ensuring that those reforms are more painful and difficult when they are forced to happen in a larger system more resistant to change.

To wrest control of our environs back from the bureaucratic upper levels of government would require reversing the taxation scheme we have now. Make the Feds and the States beg the local municipalities for their collected tax monies. We got some good stuff built by the top-down method of governance, but it came at the expense of local investments, and it's simply ground to a halt as nobody can come to a consensus on what our priorities as a nation are. Now it's time for more local investment, building resiliency, improving quality of life, and doing it with our own money rather than shipping it off to some unknown location where it gets mixed together and redistributed by some arbitrary formula.


This sounds like a crazy idea, Jeffrey, because it flips the current approach completely around, but I think it deserves real examination. I like it. 

As a bad analogy, I read a book on the American Revolution and it talked about how difficult it was to sustain a fight because the troops were essentially volunteers and could go home when things stopped working. There was no chance a new United States was going to become militaristic because doing so would require a sustained level of local support for was that was just not possible. 

Many times the large systems we have created just don't respond to local initiatives. Or they over-respond, losing the local context that made it work. A different taxing mechanism would certainly drive innovation while making those large systems more than a little more responsive to what is taking place in the trenches.

Incidentally, I did a presentation last November on the Tea Party and how city advocates should jump at the chance to give them what they want. (Here it is in podcast: Red and Blue America). My findings were that blue states tend to want more government spending but actually get back less money from Washington than they submit in tax payments. Red states are the reverse, seeking less government spending but actually getting back far more money than they send in. If we let places keep their money, blue states would have more to spend and red states would have less government. Everyone happy. 

Question:  In lieu of a structured incentive arrangement, does the League of Minnesota Cities provide a useful peer-to-peer learning environment?  Or some other existing process?


I am not sure, but good idea. I respect what the League is doing and there are certainly people there that understand the long-term solvency issues, but I sometimes get frustrated with them. They too often are on the side of advocating for no change when I think they should be arguing for a stable and predictable mechanism to move cities to a more stable footing. But I understand they are in a tough spot as few of the communities they represent want any substantive change.

And maybe that is a good thought to end this post with: our actual lack of desire for change. If evolution occurs through a reaction to stress, there are few of us that would seek evolution because few of us welcome stress. To me a sustainable system of local government is one that organically drives innovation by allowing cities to respond and adapt to stress while simultaneously measuring results, rewarding success and correcting failure.

As Nassim Taleb has stated, the best systems have an anti-fragility mechanism. A box labeled. "Fragile. Do not drop."  would obviously contain something that would break when subjected to the stress of dropping. But what about a box labeled, "Anti-fragile. Please drop often."

Can we design systems of governance that actually improve when subjected to stress? I think we can, but not by solidifying the status quo through greater consolidation.


Last month we started collecting donations to cover the cost of producing a DVD version of the Curbside Chat. Our goal was to connect with 100 of our readers that would be willing to donate $25 each. We've taken quite a bite out of this so far -- we've signed up 33 -- but we still have a ways to go. If you value what you read here or what we produce in our podcast, please do what you can to help us spread this message. We thank you, especially if you are one of our 880+ Facebook connections! It was only a year ago we were still below 200. Thanks for spreading the word. 


CNU Open Source Congress

Guest contributor Edward Erfurt is a member of CNU's NextGen. He blogs at Restless Urbanist and can be followed on Twitter. This blog entry contains two posts from his website and is published here with his permission.

This blog post is dedicated to introducing you to Open Source so you will be inspired to bring a topic to Madison. CNU 19 is hosting an en masse Open Source Congress. Bring your thoughts and topics to discuss with other urbanists from across the globe.

The concept is simple; share a topic or idea during the Thursday morning Plenary, find like-minded participants, and host a discussion on your topic. The Open Source Congress will bring together small groups of enthusiastic people to work with you to tackle your challenge. This is an opportunity to use the broad resources of the Congress attendees. Use the day to develop these ideas.

These topics could be simple in nature, or you could prepare a more elaborate presentation to share. Several topics have been developed during previous Congresses such as Light Imprint UrbanismSprawl Retrofit, and Tactical Urbanism. These topics started with small groups and have expanded in a national discourse and publications. 

The annual Congress has always had intelligent and challenging presentations from some of the best minds in the business, but the schedule is tight and not every topic has the opportunity to have a plenary session. At the same time, the Congress is full of smart, talented, committed urbanists. Open Source is the opportunity to discuss and explore additional topics and for all of us to interact and engage. Best of all, what happens during Open Space is entirely up to you.

I will be sharing several blog posts over the next few days explaining the simplicity of the process and the CNU venue, which I assure you takes longer to write then it does to explain. Now is the time to start sharing your ideas. Begin putting together your thoughts, and share on the CNU webpage, various list-serves, Facebook accounts or blogs. 


Open Source Format

What is the simplest way to share an idea: Open Source. The Congress for the New Urbanism’s National Conference is hosting a venue for Open Source. Open Source has been a growing trend during the Congress, and this year the first day of the Congress has been dedicated to the ideas of the broad membership.

For those of you new to Open Source or to the annual Congress gathering, I wanted to share with you the process. I was able to get a preview of Jennifer Hurley’s notes, so she deserves all the credit for this. I will be sharing the history of Open Source at CNU in an upcoming post. There are no surprises to Open Source -- it is really simple. 

Technique: To help the participants at the Congress in Madison engage with each other, a full day has been dedicated a technique called “Open Space Technology”.  It’s been used for more than 20 years, all over the world, with groups as small as 5 people and as large as 2000.  It was created by a guy named Harrison Owen who wanted to combine the interaction and energy that happens in a good coffee break, with the substance and content of traditional conference sessions. 

Mechanics: The first step in the process is for anyone in the audience who wants to come to the front of the room, write a topic you care about and your name on a piece of paper, and read out your topic and name to the group.  You will then choose a time slot and location for your discussion by selecting one of the sticky notes.

A main wall in the Ballroom becomes our community bulletin board with the schedule of the “insta-Congress”.  Once everyone has named their topics, we will open up the “village marketplace” so that people can find which sessions they want to join. Sessions and presentations may inspire additional topics, which can be added to the marketplace throughout the Congress. 

There is one session Thursday morning in the main ballroom room, and then there are sessions concurrent with other breakout sessions throughout the Congress.  Topic leaders choose when and where your discussion takes place. 

Passion & Responsibility: Open Space Technology is based on the twin pair of passion and responsibility.  Things only get done when someone takes responsibility for it, and people really only take responsibility for the things they are passionate about.

When you put your topic and name down, you are taking responsibility for (1) showing up at the appointed time and place, (2) getting the conversation started, and (3) finding someone in your group to take notes. 

OST works based on 4 principles, and 1 law.

  •  4 principles:
    •  Whoever comes are the right people
    •  Whatever happens is the only thing that could
    •  Whenever it starts is the right time
    •  When it’s over, it’s over
  •  The Law of Two Feet:
    • If you find yourself neither learning nor contributing, it’s your responsibility to take yourself somewhere else.
    • Your experience here today is entirely up to you.

Setting the Agenda: The agenda is simple. You are invited write your topic and name on a paper, and read out the topic and your name to the group.  As stated before, Open Space Technology is based on Passion and Responsibility. You do not have to hold onto your passions until you walk into the Convention Center in Madison. Take advantage of social networking to start posting your ideas and find other like minded individuals before the Congress.

Opening the Marketplace: Once all of the topics are placed at the Village Market Place, you will see the full schedule of topics. You are free to go to any session that interests you. If you want to go to two sessions at the same time, you can try to convince one of the conveners to change their time slot, or you can bounce between the two sessions.  If you think two sessions ought to merge, talk to the conveners.  As soon as you’ve decided which session you want to join, please go and get started.  The marketplace is now open.

During the sessions, you have 4 principles, and 1 law. Some of you will be pollinators. You may take advantage of the law of two feet and move between groups. During this process you may share ideas from one group and pass them onto another.

The other exciting part of Open Source is that when it is over, it is over. In previous Congresses, I have participated in sessions that moved onto dinner, and even late into the night. I am not sure if I can attest to the best note taking as the night went on, but I built some of the best friendships during these sessions. 


The closing has a couple of purposes. First, it is an opportunity to share the notes from your session with other participants. Secondly, it is an opportunity to share with the entire group your thoughts of the event. The entire group will return and join in a big circle for the closing. As we go around the circle, you are invited you to share any reflection you wish about your experience. This is simply a time for sharing, not for dialogue. 

If you are a first time attendee to the Congress for the New Urbanism, this is the best way to make 500 new friends on the first day.


Strong Towns will be at CNU 19. Over the coming weeks we will be previewing Congress events and activities. If you have something you would like to share here relating to CNU 19, please contact Charles Marohn at marohn@strongtowns.org. We thank Edward Erfurt for sharing his material here today and encourage everyone to follow his blog, Restless Urbanist.