Complete Streets

In highway engineering parlance, Complete Streets are roadways designed with all road users in mind, including transit riders, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists. Well-designed Complete Streets enable users of all types to move safely along their length.

A portion of a heavily-trafficked 4-lane, 45 mph arterial in my area was recently turned into a Complete Street. Prior to the conversion, riding a bike on this section of roadway was not a pleasant experience. The shoulder was narrow, rough, and strewn with debris, and because motorists often travel at freeway speeds on this road, taking the lane was completely out of the question.

Recently, the roadway was re-paved and widened, and a full-width bike lane and sidewalk were installed. The improvement in the riding experience was astonishing; the road went from being one to avoid, to being a useful and comfortable route to get across that part of town.

While the philosophical arguments for and against bicycle-specific infrastructure continue unabated, out in the real world Incomplete Streets don’t hold a candle to Complete Streets.

23 Responses to “Complete Streets”

  • Justin says:

    Good to see this! Enjoy.

  • Fergie348 says:

    Agreed that bike lane is better than no bike lane, but I’m left wondering if this is the best we can do. Let me explain – I believe that the lane shown in Alan’s picture is perhaps suitable for experienced transportation or recreational cyclists who are comfortable in traffic already. It provides space and clear guidelines on where traffic should be.

    What it does not do is provide a safe and stress free cycling experience for inexperienced and/or young cyclists. Perhaps a better approach would be to provide cycling and pedestrian facilities ‘above the curb’ where there is currently a pedestrian walkway.

    I guess it depends on how much the sidewalk gets used for actual walking, but by placing cycling traffic off of a roadway where, as Alan says, traffic approaches highway speeds we can provide a truly safe place for everyone to ride their bikes.

    Much of what passes for bicycle infrastructure today seems targeted at the 3-5% of people who are already riding their bikes on the street. I’m wondering if we need to provide facility improvement at a higher level if we want to increase that mode share. In other words, is what Alan describes above sufficient to get non cyclists interested in riding their bikes to the store, to school, to work, to the movies, etc.?

    Thoughts, comments?

  • Chris Morfas says:

    Nicely stated.

    In terms of vehicle spped, the roadway you’ve pictured here is near (or perhaps beyond) the limit for which striped bike lanes are sufficient. However, as you note, they’re much better than before when the “shoulder was narrow, rough, and strewn with debris”.

    The trick is getting good bicycling and walking facilities without widening roads, but that’s going to take a little more clout than we have now.

  • Supp Suppinger says:

    I agree with Fergie and Chris: Good paths for cyclists should be safe and nice lookking, interesting, it should be joy to cycle there. As Alan already showed many times with his nice photographs showing his daily commute, which lloks great: a nice path, nice nature around, nice surface, not only straight but with slight bends, to not get bored. The street on the post looks boring, dirty (because of the cars) and noisy, each normal person would avoid it. I can imagine that noise of the cars stressing You.
    @ Chris: Yes, making “more of the same” (Paul Watzlawick), putting more streets, more concrete on the planet, can´t be the solution. BEtter would be to take existing roads, narrow them, close e.g. one lane for cars and put a bike lane on it instead. More people and cyclists on the streets not only make streets more liveable and safer, but also more interesting. No cyclist would love to cycle on a freeway, not because safety issues, but because it´s loud, there is dust, no human beings, only machines, the bitumen or asphalt gets hot from the sun and reflects the heat, etc. By the way, that´s the reason, why in good old Europe they used to plant trees (“tree-lined road”) on both sides of the streets, to provide shade for the travellers (human beings walking, with horses, bicycles,…). Well, this was decades ago, then they started cutting many of the trees, because cars started to crash into them. It was not a fault of the trees, it was a fault of the drivers, going to fast … There are still many tree-lined roads left especially in Eastern Europe, for example in Czech Republic. To ride a bike there is real joy, especially in the heat of the day, when You can cycle in the shade of the trees. You recognise, those roads where built by humans for humans! If it would be possible, I would like to post some pictures, to share it with You …
    Maybe some of us cyclists drive a car … I would like to encourage You, don´t look at the world with the view of car drivers, try to take the view point of human beings ……

  • SB Tim says:

    Wow, look at all of that irrigation water being wasted, but that’s another issue.

    While it is better than before, the street before was probably rock bottom for cycling safety, so better doesn’t necessarily mean great. I am grateful of all improvements for cycling, but I do agree with Fergie, in that I would not feel comfortable riding on this road as >50mph vehicle traffic passes within a few feet, especially not with my toddler in the bike seat or with my older kid riding his own bike with me. We would still ride on the sidewalk in these cases (which is illegal in my city), and I’m fully aware of all of the dangers of sidewalk riding – you just go slower and keep watch at driveways. I would like to see the right side of bike lanes begin at the left side of the concrete gutter since the gutter is not designed for traffic and most cyclist will stay to the left of it anyway. Then the entire bike lane would be on smooth asphalt, and the gutter is used for what it is intended to do – convey runoff water and serve as a deposit for road debris. I would also love to see a buffer strip (no man’s land) between the bike lane and motor vehicle lane. That would be a real complete street.

  • Ryan says:

    There is nothing like that roadway around where I live. Basically what we have is no sidewalk, no shoulder, two lane roads with vehicles traveling at near highway speeds even around blind turns and a lot of debris on what little space is left that a cyclist would use. It is just not a good place for a cyclist to ride and will not change anytime soon. Probably the reason why seeing someone commuting by bike around my area is like seeing an albino deer on the side of the road. Really nobody does it.

    My solution is to stay in neighborhoods with less traffic and use a winding route to get anywhere, which takes more time but is less likely to put me in a bodybag. There are a few places that I absolutely have to ride on busy roads and I just suck it up and pray that nothing clips me.

    I would like to see bike lanes separated from the roadways by a curb or some height difference, it would make drivers really think twice about coming into the bikeway. The reality is that anything would be an improvement over the current conditions in my neck of the woods.

  • Ak Mike says:

    Re: SB Tim’s comment – “I would also love to see a buffer strip (no man’s land) between the bike lane and motor vehicle lane. That would be a real complete street.”

    Totally agree with this. I am more concerned than ever of distracted drivers (cell phones and texting), and the idea of physical buffers between pedestrians / cyclists and motorized traffic is definitely preferred.

    But in an auto-culture society, I guess that little steps forward are better than none at all. And as stated multiple times here before, as the price of petroleum rises over the next few years, the pressure to build liveable streets will no doubt increase.

    Here’s hoping for more bikes and less traffic.

    AK Mike

  • Pete says:

    That looks positively Copenhagian to me! Nothing of the sort where I ride.
    Not likely to be, either. Every road around here has had as many car lanes crammed onto it as possible. Most started as 2-lanes, and were widened to 4 whether there was room or not. Some even went to 4 plus curbside parking. The sidewalks (at least there are sidwalks) were minimised and often the only place for light and power poles is right in the middle of them.
    Another thing about the photo. With the expection, presumably, of you, there is not another cyclist to be seen. It’s very hard for politicians to justify “taking space away from cars” if the resulting bike lane is not immediately filled with bikes. Police are also not encouraged to enforce parking restrictions, etc in bike lanes when there don’t seem to be bike using them. I’m playing devils advocate, of course, but it’s the kind of stuff you hear at town planning meetings all the time…

  • Grateful says:

    I agree with the rest of you. Granted, a “painted stripe” may be better than nothing, but not by much.

    Since they widened the road anyway why not put the curb where the stripe is and make the sidewalk and bike lane to the Right of the curb. Are road planners really this stupid? Obviously!

    Which brings me to MY suggestion for the whole nation. We’ve got millions of miles of sidewalks that are rarely used by foot traffic – especially in suburban areas. Why not spend the relatively small amount of dollars & effort it would take to convert those to accommodate bike traffic? Some would have to be widened – no big deal. They would need to be marked – also simple. In areas where sidewalks are needed for foot traffic, other cycling facilities would be required.

    But by ALL MEANS, we at least need curbs between us and cars – especially here in the age of cell phones and texting.

    Most humans, (monkeys with car keys), do not believe that a painted stripe means for them to stay off that part of THEIR road. Their tiny little brains MUST be FORCED into compliance by an actual, physical barrier.

  • peteathome says:

    From what you said, it was the lane widening that made the lane go from unsharable to sharable. The bike lane itself didn’t make the lane more pleasant, the added width and better paving did.

    I would prefer that widened lane without the bike lane stenciled in for three reasons:
    1)Studies show cars pass more closely when a bike lane is marked within a lane compared to the same lane without marking, and
    2)Without the bike lane marking, cars tend to move over the entire lane width (when cyclists aren’t present) sweeping most of the debris out of the lane. With the bike lane marked a lot of road debris ends up swept by cars out of their lanes into the bike lane. Unless the city plans regular sweeping, the bike lane will fill up with junk. And
    3)The bike lane will make naive bicyclists think they are safer because of the lane. They will be less likely to be careful at intersections,where the real dangers tend to lie.

    BTW – where did the extra width come from? Did they restripe the other lanes narrower to give more room to the outside lane?

  • Garth Madison says:

    They just opened a road back up this week here, which includes a bike lane to nowhere, i.e., it just ends when it reaches the old portions of the road. However, the main problem is that the lane is too narrow one one side, and alternately puts you either to the right of cars turning right, or between cars going straight and cars turning right. I had a pickup truck turn right into me this morning, trying to cut into a parking garage without using his turn signal. First warning I had was when he started entering my lane. After I hit him (no harm to me at all) and he stopped and got out, he said 1) he hadn’t seen me (even though he had passed me earlier on the road), and 2) he didn’t know there was a bike lane there until I pointed it out to him (even though he was staying inside his own lane until the turn). Of course, if he’d used his darned turn signal, we probably wouldn’t have been having the conversation. And I’m hoping people will start noticing the new bike lane at _some_ point. But it raises some of the very serious limitations of this kind of infrastructure. Is it better than nothing? It’s a nice thought at least. But frankly I think I’ll just take the lane on that street from now on. Screw the bike lane. I’m going as fast as the cars on that side of the street anyway, since it’s a low speed limit and that side is downhill. Hopefully motorists will notice me if I’m directly in front of their bumper!


  • townmouse says:

    If the bike lane had been moved from the roadway to above the curb, would it have continued to have right of way across the side streets? That is one big bugbear with off-road cycle tracks in the UK (not in the Netherlands or Denmark though) – although both pedestrians on the sidewalk and cars on the main road would have right of way, bikes on an off-road lane generally have to give way to every side road – and even driveway – they cross.

  • Fergie348 says:

    There is a paradigm to follow if we are truly serious about moving the mode share % of human powered transit up to the 20-30% of trips under 5 miles in length that is talked about in transportation circles. Unfortunately, Complete Streets isn’t it..

    I would argue that this is what a truly ‘complete street’ looks like:

    Notice in this picture of a Copenhagen street that there are sidewalks for pedestrians next to bike lanes above the curb with different surfaces to keep bikes in the bike lane and cars away from both cyclists and pedestrians. This solves it all, and wouldn’t require much more time and money to implement than simply repaving and re-striping. Obviously, this is a city street and such an implementation wouldn’t make sense everywhere, but the concept is sound and there are many examples throughout Europe and Australia of modal networks separated by physical infrastructure that allow each mode to function to capacity without fear for the safety of anyone. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, we just have to use what others have already designed.

  • Ron says:


    The bell in the photo, it’s not shiny! Now, I don’t use exclamation points lightly, in fact, my left pinky fluttered in the air for a moment trying to find the key. But I think that’s the first time you’ve allowed an unpolished part to creep into a photo. Call it schadenfreude, but it gave me a warm feeling.
    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg

  • Mike says:

    How is this bike lane marked at intersections? If my memory serves me well, most of the bike lanes that I’ve encountered are not marked as they cross streets. Looking at some satellite photos of the Netherlands, the coloration and painted lines for bicycle lanes seem to continue through intersections, making it more obvious to motorists turning right that they are crossing a bike lane. Of course, motorists in the Netherlands are far more aware of cyclists than Americans…

  • Fergie348 says:


    Not sure how they do it in the Netherlands, but in north Germany the bike and pedestrian crossways have a textured surface that’s also a slightly different color than the surrounding asphalt. And there’s a light for bikes and peds. And the drivers are more aware of the fact that bicycles will be crossing when they want to turn, so yeah we have some cultural adjustments to make before this is all totally safe..

  • Ron says:


    Mike and Fergie offer some good solutions. I’d always assumed you simply couldn’t mark lanes through intersections, as it would create a chaotic cross-hatch. Their ideas certainly would have helped a judge in Portland:

    As far as I know, this still stands, leaving the status of cyclists in the de facto intersection bike lane in limbo (in Oregon).
    Happy Trails,

  • Erik Johnson says:

    The Sacramento region has put together a toolkit for advocates as well as planners that gets into the nitty gritty of complete streets:

  • Alan says:


    “How is this bike lane marked at intersections?”

    It’s not marked through the intersections. Leading up to and beyond major intersections a third merge lane comes in to the right of the bike lane.

  • Alan says:


    “Call it schadenfreude, but it gave me a warm feeling.”


    That’s my favorite little bell. You’re looking at 2 years of patina!

  • Frits B says:

    This road may now be complete but it is by no means safe for cyclists. It’s a 45 mph arterial road with a lot of traffic, separated from cyclists by no more than a line of paint. The designers obviously never ride a bike or they might know that passing cars, and trucks in particular, cause a turbulance big enough to pull a cyclist off course. Cyclists ride an oscillating line at best (which is only natural) and their center of gravity is high. Have a truck pass a cyclist close enough at 45 mph and the wake sucks the cyclist right into the car lane.

    Putting a kerb in to keep cars and cyclists apart is not the answer. It can be where speeds are lower, but on a road like this it doesn’t eliminate the pulling force of the cars’ wake.

    Why is it so difficult to to shop around and learn from more experienced countries?

    This is one of the videos made by Mark Wagenbuur:

    Here he describes a cycle route from the outskirts from his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in Holland (pronounced Den Bosch) to the city center. Den Bosch originally was a medieval city which expanded into an industrial hub over the last 100 years. The roads shown in this video, and the others on Mark’s site, look relatively new but mainly because they got a makeover from their original layout. Arterial roads into the city have a 70 kph = 40 mph speed limit and are strictly separated from cycle paths. And don’t say there is no room; the video shows four lanes, two cycle paths and two sidewalks, all with separations. All you need is a bit of common sense, and experience on a bike so planners know what it feels like to riding among dinosaurs.

  • Alan says:

    @Frits B

    “Here he describes a cycle route from the outskirts from his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in Holland (pronounced Den Bosch) to the city center.”

    Great video; we can only dream about those kinds of excellent separated facilities here in the U.S. In many areas across the country bicyclists aren’t even fortunate enough to have a stripe of paint and a little space as shown at the top of this post. I guess when you’re starving for bicycle-specific infrastructure like we are, even the tidbits are appreciated.

    Thanks for sharing!


  • Ak Mike says:

    Re: Garth Madison’s comment – “But frankly I think I’ll just take the lane on that street from now on. Screw the bike lane.”

    This is the tact I take on my commutes / rides all the time. Our little town has very little in the way of a “cycling shoulder” on most streets. When I see traffic in my mirror approaching, if I determine that I will be put in an uncomfortable or dangerous position, I take the lane whenever I can – and I take the whole lane until such time I can safely move to the side.

    Granted, not all streets are the same in this regard. The predominant speed of the motorized traffic versus my speed is a factor. It is very situational.

    However, if my speed is similar to the traffic, and my safety would be enhanced by taking the lane, that’s where I’m going.

    AK Mike

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