Complete Streets vs. Complete Roads

What is the difference between a complete street and a complete road? This is a distinction that I didn’t give too much though to until reading an entry on Strong Towns unpacking a problem that they term as the co-opting of complete streets.

Charles Marohn, an author of Strong Towns, cites their earlier blog entry, Placemaking Principles for Strong Towns, to explain the difference between a street and a road:

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.

So, in very simple terms, roads connect discrete communities, whereas streets facilitate transportation (by foot, rail, bicycle, slowly-driven car, etc.) within them.

The concept of complete streets is great and gets a lot of people fired up. Municipalities are, at least on paper, largely behind them. Although their name doesn’t reflect it, at their real essence, Marohn points out that these initiatives are really about creating complete neighborhoods: lively places with the controlled chaos of activity, commerce, and walkability.

In Marohn’s view, complete streets projects can easily become co-opted by engineers whose primary concerns, in descending order, are traffic speed, traffic volume, safety and cost — regardless of where the street is or what function it is meant to serve in the community. In the end, those priorities will result in a road that probably does a great job ferrying high-speed vehicular traffic, but does little for pedestrians, street life, or other modes of transportation. In other words, blame the engineers. Kidding!

I really liked Marohn’s analysis of what a complete street is and what a complete roads (I’d be curious to hear what the engineers out there think). The language we use in these discussions is so critical to the realization of our shared goals. The complete streets vs. complete roads division also resonated with me because it illustrates the challenges of coordination and communication between different project stakeholders. One project can mean vastly different things to the various people involved in its execution, and everyone is advocating along their own interests and priorities. To read about making complete roads more street-like, check out Charles Marohn’s follow-up post.

Image: Alex E. Proimos

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