NewPublicHealth Q&A: Barbara McCann of the National Complete Streets Coalition

Feb 2, 2012, 4:25 PM, Posted by

Barbara Mccann

Town and city streets are an important part of the livability of communities, says Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition and a presenter and moderator at this week’s New Partners for Smart Growth conference in San Diego. McCann says streets ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper. “But too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams.”

But in communities across the country, a movement is growing to complete the streets and these communities are asking planners and engineers to build road networks that are safer, more livable, and welcoming to everyone.

Instituting a complete streets policy, according to McCann, ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind. NewPublicHealth caught up with McCann in advance of this week’s conference.

NewPublicHealth: What is the scope of Complete Streets?

Barbara McCann: Complete Streets is about getting communities around the country to adopt policies to ensure that streets work for all users, and we have focused quite a lot on policy adoption. We’re seeing success in more half of the states and in about 300 local communities. And now we’re turning our attention towards implementation. What do communities need to do once they have a policy in order to actually make changes on the ground that creates a safer environment for walking and bicycling and taking the bus and other really active transportation?

NPH: How quickly have you seen changes recently?

Barbara McCann: Well, certainly in policy adoption it’s been going great guns. We’ve pretty much doubled the number of policies adopted every year for the past three years, from close to zero where we started this in 2006. So the policies are really, really spreading. Implementation of actually seeing change on the ground is a long haul process in most places because Complete Streets policy must make sure that every future project is done differently, and so that means that you’re not going to see an overnight change in your community, but it does mean that as investments move forward, every transportation investment will start to make a difference.

There are communities that have been doing this for a number of years and we do see improvements in facilities, we see public support or some of the innovations that are happening on the roadways really rising. We see safety improving and we see an increase in biking and walking in some of the places that have taken this approach.

NPH: What community would you hold up as a model for Complete Streets?

Barbara McCann: A good example is Charlotte, North Carolina where they started their Complete Streets in 2004. It’s really part of a comprehensive effort. They’re improving transit as well. They have a new light rail line, and so completing their streets is a piece of that overarching change. They have converted some roads to have space for automobiles and for people on foot and they’ve seen public support rise. They regularly pass bond measures to support transportation infrastructure partly because of this effort, and they’ve seen an increase in the use of streets and a decrease in crashes.

NPH: How do you see the New Partners for Smart Growth conference helping to move forward the Complete Streets movement?

Barbara McCann: Well, the neat thing about the Complete Streets movement is that it’s been embraced by such a wide variety of groups and people. It’s perceived as really just one of a whole range of things that are happening to improve communities overall. The conference is a great way to connect with all of the different parts of the movement because I think what we’re all aiming at is a holistic approach to the way that we build our communities, and that holistic approach should support health outcomes. In order to do that, all the people who work in different sectors need to talk to each other and the conference has that happening.

NPH: What new partners do you need to help improve the greater integration of the Complete Streets idea into the US?

Barbara McCann: Well, we have a quite a diverse variety of partners already. The Smart Growth movement and the National Association of Realtors is a big supporter of Complete Streets which is great to have, as well as some of the practitioner organizations like the American Planning Association and the Institute of Transportation Engineers. I think we’d like to see more support from developers who are developing our communities and increased partnerships with disability groups working toward greater access for people with disabilities. And we’d like lot add more small business owners. I think understanding how these more complete communities really help support business interests is something that we could use some more help on.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.