In Smart Growth America’s list of The Best Complete Streets Policies for 2023, only one California city made the top 10 (Sacramento, at number 10). California was bested by cities in Maryland, Missouri, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Florida, and Louisiana. Most of those aren’t states you think of when you think about forward-thinking active transportation policies.
Kudos to El Paso, Joplin, New Orleans, and Riverside (Missouri, not California), among others, for developing policies that help create safe spaces on the street for all transportation modes. But we have to ask: Why is California falling so far behind?
What are Complete Streets?
Complete Streets are streets where people can walk, bike, and take public transportation safely and comfortably, as well as drive a car. They include features such as protected bike lanes, bulb-outs to shorten crosswalks, signal timing that doesn’t penalize walking, narrow lanes to slow vehicular traffic, and bus-only lanes to help transit move people quickly.
Smart Growth America outlines 10 elements Complete Streets policies need to be successful, including prioritizing underserved communities, having commitment and vision, and creating a plan for implementation. In choosing the best Complete Streets policies for 2023, it scored each jurisdiction on the 10 elements and ranked them in order of their total score.
The report evaluated the Complete Streets policies of three California cities (Sacramento, Fresno, and San Jose) and two agencies (Caltrans and the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission). Sacramento scored 78 out of 100, placing it in the top 10. Fresno was close behind, with a score of 77. The MTC got 67, Caltrans 61, and San Jose just 39. Other California cities weren’t included, we assume, because they don’t have Complete Streets policies. (San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley would be included in the MTC policy).
In 2019, CalBike supported a bill to require Caltrans to include Complete Streets elements in every repaving project, where feasible, since the cheapest time to add these improvements is during paving. The measure passed the legislature, but Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it, citing the fact that Caltrans had its own Complete Streets policy.
Unfortunately, Caltrans didn’t follow its stated policies around Complete Streets. Since that time, the agency has upgraded its policies and added Complete Streets elements to some projects. Still, local advocates often have to fight for every mile of bike lane and every protected intersection in projects to repave state-controlled roadways that double as local streets.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that California doesn’t have comprehensive Complete Streets policies, since so many of our communities have been built (or rebuilt) to be car-centric. But, during a July that saw the hottest day ever recorded on Earth and a heat wave baking many parts of our state, perhaps it’s time to take Complete Streets more seriously.
CalBike is working on a project to assess Caltrans’ progress in implementing its Complete Streets policies. Look for more information and a way you can help soon.