Incomplete Streets: Who’s Missing from “Complete Streets?”

Cities in the United States have suffered from 80 years of development shaped by an undying commitment to the automobile as the primary mode of transit. This commitment has left a physical legacy of air pollution and associated health risks and impacts, poor public transit options and unsafe conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists in both old metropolitan areas (e.g., New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit) and newer urban centers (e.g., Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas). In each of these cities, and in many other smaller cities, low income and minority communities have borne the worst effects of auto-centric development. Not only have these communities been disproportionately utilized as the locus of industrial and other unwanted development, they have also been used as transportation corridors facilitating the speedy movement of people and goods through (or often over) their neighborhoods. This benefitted the suburban dweller and downtown employer, but not the highway-dissected community.

Recent trends in urban planning and policy aim to challenge this auto-normative paradigm by reversing the broader effects of an urban form shaped by the logics of keeping automobiles moving. The aim of creating “Complete Streets” in “walkable” and “livable cities” is an example of such an effort. Transportation Alternatives Magazine boldly asserts: “The Complete Streets revolution has begun.”1 Everyone, it seems, from planners to public health professionals to politicians wants them. Perhaps the greatest evidence of the “revolution,” at least in the US context, is the proliferation of policies and laws institutionalizing and codifying Complete Streets as a guiding principle in urban planning. “Communities of all sizes are transforming their streets into more than just a way to move people in cars from one place to another,” reports the National Complete Streets Coalition. “These communities are part of a growing national movement for Complete Streets.” In fact, the National Complete Streets Coalition’s 2013 report on best Complete Streets policies of 2012 claims that there are now 488 Complete Streets policies across the US. These exist at all levels of government, including 27 statewide policies.2 If there is indeed a Complete Streets revolution, then the objective must be to challenge the paradigm that produces in-Complete Streets. So, what exactly do we mean in calling this essay (and the book it’s adapted from) Incomplete Streets?

Complete Streets

First introduced to the lexicon in 2003 by Barbara McCann, a staff member of the advocacy organization America Bikes, Complete Streets was proposed as an alternative to the term “routine accommodation,” which was being used to convey the need to include bicycles in transportation planning. As McCann recounts, “Right away, we knew that we had a concept that was bigger than bicycles”.3 Advocates and transportation planners were brought together and eventually developed the following definition of a Complete Streets policy:

A Complete Streets policy ensures that the entire right of way is routinely designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities must be able to safely move along and across a complete street.4

While Complete Streets is the zeitgeist in the US, it is rhetorically linked to concepts commonly used outside the US such as “Livable Cities” and “Cities for People.” Developing as part of and related to the urban planning über-narrative of “place-making,” the movement has transformed the frames of livable, walkable streets into a mobilizing frame that has led to coalition building and activism, influenced legislation and policy, and provided the average citizen with a compelling and tangible vision of the potential of their streets beyond that of mere automobile conduit.

For the National Complete Streets Coalition in the US, the movement is about changing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials paradigm from “moving cars quickly” to “providing safe access for all modes,” including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities. The Coalition adds that the Complete Streets movement “encourages and provides for safe access to destinations for everyone, regardless of age, ability, income, ethnicity, or mode of travel.” Implicit in the Complete Streets concept is the notion that streets are not currently designed to meet the needs of all users. It conveys the message that streets are ultimately public spaces, and that everyone in the community—from pedestrians to bicyclists to public transit users—should have equal rights to space within them, irrespective of whether they are driving a car or not. “[This] street-level spatial justice, this ‘democratization of the street’ through the redistribution of rights to (and in) public space,” according to Agyeman, “may make the street look physically different, but…also fundamentally rewires our brains, affecting the way we think.”5 In this way, adding these “other” street users effectively de-centers the motorist while potentially bringing together previously disconnected interest groups—people with disabilities, bicyclists, senior citizens, public transit advocates and others—into a powerful coalition. Streets, the movement implies, are incomplete when they are designed, constructed and maintained with the primary objective of moving automobiles efficiently.

Incomplete streets

While we certainly agree with its challenge to auto-normativity, our aim is to provoke a more critical use and application of the Complete Streets concept by urban planners, policy-makers, and academics—investigating the question: “Complete for whom?” If the movement claims that Complete Streets policies, when implemented, “complete” previously incomplete streets, then we ought to ask whether all street users are, in fact, gaining safe access to streets “regardless of age, ability, income, ethnicity, or mode of travel”.6

The accepted definition of Complete Streets, while recognizing “diversity,” refers to “users” of streets. This effectively reduces people primarily to their mode of transportation. Yet not everyone’s mode of transportation is a choice. Some people choose to cycle while others are forced to. What mistakes might we be making in assuming that redesigning streets with the goal of providing safe access to all users of streets can sufficiently address the broader historical, political, social, and economic forces shaping the socioeconomic and racial inequalities embedded in and reproduced by the spaces we call streets?

Like Doreen Massey, we see places (and streets are places) as having no fixed meaning; rather, they are “constantly shifting articulations of social relations through time.”7 Yet much of the current physically-focused Complete Streets rhetoric disconnects streets from their significant social, structural, symbolic, discursive, and historical realities. Economically, ethnically, and racially diverse members of communities are referred to monolithically as “users.” Assumptions are made that “users” make rational choices about different “modes” of transportation available to get themselves from point A to point B. We call for a (re) conceptualization of Complete Streets that humanizes “users” by acknowledging their difference and diversity and by asking questions about how individuals’ experiences as historically marginalized members of society (and users of streets), among other identities, impinge on their ability to participate in dialogues about Complete Streets, and whether their lack of voice in turn gives shape to urban spaces that subtly, and not so subtly, exclude certain individuals.

In the wake of the rapid and largely unproblematized rise of the Complete Streets movement, it is vital to ask these questions if the movement is to fully deliver on its promises. Few urban planners are asking these types of questions. Academics, especially in fields such as urban geography, planning and sociology, where we might expect to see an interest, have given the Complete Streets phenomenon scant attention. The public health focus on the influence of the built environment on physical activity and health typically leaves out an analysis of other important social processes shaping how people interact with space and place, whether symbolic or material. Transportation engineers focus almost exclusively on the technical aspects of the design of Complete Streets, with occasional interest in political processes that open and close doors for Complete Streets projects. Long champions of Complete Streets, progressive urban planners have yet to engage in a specifically socially just framing within their discourse. Beyond peer-reviewed publications, there are a handful of reports and other analyses or recommendations for addressing the issue of equity with respect to Complete Streets policies and practices. But their approach focuses solely on the issue of transportation equity without consideration of the broader structural, historical, political, and economic factors that shape people’s places within urban systems.

Whether Complete Streets can achieve equity objectives remains to be seen, as too few Complete Streets policies have resulted in implementation of the types of projects that would allow such an analysis. More troubling is the way in which Complete Streets are abstracted and treated as theoretical ideals. Inarguably, if the non-driving population is overrepresented by the poor, people of color, seniors, and people with disabilities, then designing streets that give non-drivers a fair share of road space, in theory, will make streets more equitable. But streets do not exist in the abstract. They are (usually) paved surfaces that exist in physical spaces within a city. The spaces in between the streets, and sometimes the streets themselves, provide places for city dwellers to reside, work, recreate, worship, and engage in countless other activities that constitute city life. Streets connect these spaces in ways that advantage certain parts of the city, or certain residents within the city, over other parts of the city and its residents.
A Complete Streets project, when implemented, might cover a mere three or four city blocks. Ambitious projects in larger cities might cover more. Regardless, when implemented incrementally, Complete Streets will inevitably benefit certain people in certain urban spaces and not others. Complete Streets’ design and mobility principles and preferences include the introduction of bicycle lanes, street accessibility improvements, mass transit expansions and upgrades, and pedestrian zone placements. However, these physical changes can make certain street users and the dwellers in some neighborhoods, invisible, further diminishing their rights and roles in the community. In these predominantly low-income communities and neighborhoods of color, people worry that such changes will foster gentrification.

Historical narrative and the right to the city

We must remain attentive to the question of whether the ways Complete Streets narratives, policies, plans, and efforts are envisioned and implemented might be systematically reproducing and even amplifying many of the urban spatial and social inequalities and injustices that have characterized cities for the last century or more. We ought to push planners and policy-makers, academics, activists, and laypeople to think more critically about streets, not just as physical and material amenities that function to move people and goods, but as significant social and symbolic spaces where users are linked to intersecting economic, transportation, food, cultural, and governance systems, as well as personal, group, and community histories and experiences. Streets and the communities they connect are physical and symbolic spaces with great potential. They can reflect and reproduce the social structures, inequalities, and injustices that continue to shape and define many urban lives. But they can also empower and engage, build civic and social capital, and create opportunities, if seen in their wider contexts.

Ultimately, our intent is to demonstrate the power of seeing streets not as fixed, but as constantly adapting and evolving physical, social, and symbolic spaces of creativity and contestation, and that social equity is essential in facilitating the constant adaptation and evolution that streets must undergo in response to the changing communities around them. Inequality creates powerful vested interests committed to maintaining the status quo, which sees streets as spaces that primarily function to move privileged people using privileged modes of transportation in order to get them to places of work, consumption, and recreation.

We then, are concerned both with streets that are incomplete from the urban planner’s perspective (i.e., streets that exclude non-drivers), as well as with the incompleteness of ostensibly “complete” streets. In employing the concept of Incomplete Streets, we intend to draw attention to important missing narratives in the Complete Streets discourse and practice. In studying New Haven, Connecticut, Talja Blokland showed how place-making (and by extrapolation Complete Street-making) can be seen as a struggle between residents’ different historical narratives (which thereby define “the community”).8 If any of the historical narratives are absent from the dominant picture of who the community is, that picture will therefore be distorted. In short, we contend that there are important missing people—namely people of color, immigrants, the poor and other historically disenfranchised individuals—in popular narratives of Complete Streets. Similarly, the notion of Incomplete Streets evokes an understanding of streets as lived and ultimately contested spaces and asks us to consider the types of spaces, for example, recreational, religious, commercial, and, most importantly, public, that may or may not be missing from hypothetically Complete Streets. Finally, David Harvey reminds us of the broader context for participation in Complete Streets at the discursive, narrative, and physical levels, namely, that they are a part of our Right to the City: “The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is … one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”.9

Julian Agyeman is Professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) at Tufts University, USA. Agyeman’s expertise and research interests critically explore aspects of the complex and embedded relations between humans and the environment, and the effects of this on public policy and planning processes and outcomes, particularly in relation to notions of justice and equity. He co-founded and is Editor-in-Chief of Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability, and has authored more than 150 publications. Agyeman’s most recent book is Food Trucks, Cultural Identity and Social Justice (MIT Press, 2017).
Stephen Zavestoski is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of San Francisco, USA. He is the co-editor, with Phil Brown, of Social Movements in Health (Blackwell, 2005), and with Phil Brown and Rachel Morello-Frosch, of Contested Illnesses: Citizens, Science, and Health Social Movements (UC Press, 2012). His research areas include environmental sociology, social movements, sociology of health and illness, and urban sustainability. Dr. Zavestoski is also co-editor of the Routledge series Equity, Justice and the Sustainable City.
Adapted from Incomplete Streets: Processes, practices, and possibilities, edited by Stephen Zavestoski and Julian Agyeman, (Routledge Equity, Justice and the Sustainable City series). Taylor and Francis. 2014.
1Transportation Alternatives Magazine, “A lot can happen between the lines: Completing NYC streets,” Fall issue 2007,
2National Complete Streets Coalition (with Smartgrowth America), The best Complete Streets policies of 2012, 2013,
3Barbara McCann, Happy anniversary, Complete Streets! Smartgrowth America/National Complete Streets Coalition, 2010,
4Barbara McCann, and Suzanne Rynne, Complete Streets: Best policy and implementation practices. Planning Advisory Service Report Number 559, New York, NY: American Planning Association, 2009.
5Julian Agyeman, Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning and practice, London: Zed Books, 2013.
6National Complete Streets Coalition (with Smartgrowth America), Best Complete Streets policies of 2012, 2013.
7Doreen Massey, “Places and their pasts,” History Workshop Journal, 39 (1), 1995, 182– 192.
8Talja Blokland, “Celebrating local histories and defining neighbourhood communities: place-making in a gentrified neighbourhood,” Urban Studies, 46 (8), 2009, 1593– 1610.
9David Harvey, “The right to the city,” New Left Review, 53 (Sept–Oct 2008), 23.