What is 'Complete'?
June 5, 2015

I've criticised the idea of Complete Streets before; the idea that a street is not 'complete' unless it meets certain criteria - namely, that it accommodate everyone. But, I dislike using the word 'complete' because it implies the idea that a street can reach 'completeness', which could mean either three things:

1. A street is 'complete' when it contains as many elements as possible - such as travel lanes, trees, parallel parking, bike lanes, cross walks, trash cans, benches, etc. You end up with a very wide street in an attempt to fit everything in, which wastes a lot of space. As a 'fit-as-much-in-as-possible' street seems expensive to build (with all of those elements) and typically ends up very wide, I think a more apt name for this style would be a 'fat street';

A fat street. As much as possible is crammed in.

The idea that a street is complete because it contains every essential element is very subjective. What elements are essential for a street to be considered complete?

For example, from the areas I grew up in, I always knew properties as having a defined front border that separated the property from the street - either the building or front fence was build right up against the sidewalk. To me, a street only looks 'complete' when it is perfectly framed with a border;

A typical street in the suburb of Prospect, South Australia.

A newer residential development still under construction in the suburb of Northgate, South Australia.

When I moved to Arkansas, virtually no one had front fences (apart from the odd exception), so every street felt 'unframed' and incomplete in comparison. For the longest time, the incompleteness of the unframed streets irked me, because it was unfamiliar and took getting used to;

An established inner residential street in Little Rock, Arkansas.

If you asked me several years ago to draw a Complete Street before I ever heard of the term, I would have definitely framed the street with front fences, because that is all I knew, and it would have felt incomplete otherwise.

2. A street is 'complete' when it is in its final state - hence, it has 'completed' development. This is a preposterous definition, because our cities are always evolving, and never truly brought to a stage where it could be called 'complete' and never to change.

A new residential subdivision in Fort Worth, Texas. With so many restrictive rules, it is hard to imagine this neighbourhood ever evolving and looking any different, so for now we might consider it to be in its final state - a 'completed' street.

3. A street is 'complete' when it completely accommodate everyone. This is usually the definition given by urbanists who are living somewhere where walking or bicycling is either unpleasant or dangerous and automatically assume that streets are for motorised traffic only unless otherwise explicitly marked. So that these urbanists get their fair share of the transportation pie, their definition of a 'complete' street is usually any street with a dedicated sidewalk and, if wide enough, bike lanes.

Yet, the street I currently live on has no sidewalk - just a single flat paved surface with no markings, and I am fine with that. Kids play basketball on street, people walk and ride bicycles, and vehicular traffic is slow and infrequent so there is no need to segregate uses;

A residential street in Conway, Arkansas. Perfectly safe for pedestrians and bicyclists.

..and, you know, I have built a reputation of being some kind of extreme urbanist (because I promote traditional human-scale development), so many of you conventional urbanists would probably be shocked that I consider the above street to be perfectly pedestrian-friendly. There is no need to add a pitiful little strip of people-only space (a sidewalk), when it functionally acts as a shared space anyway - where there is a single shared surface where no users are given priority over another;

A shared space in Manchester, England. Many Americans also live on streets with no segregation (no sidewalks and bike lanes) - yet consider it inferior to this example. I guess urbanists want us to pave our streets in something other than asphalt before they will consider it a shared space.

The idea of a Complete Street as one that accommodates everyone is the definition given by Smart Growth America. I understand the reasoning behind this, as much of what Smart Growth America Complete Streets campaign tries to do is to convince residents and developers living in a totally car-oriented environment that by not accommodating people walking around, they are not accommodating everyone and their street is therefore inferior and incomplete. 'Everyone' is a rather safe word - I would rather just throw my intention out there and say that all streets must accommodate people walking - because the term 'everyone' can be abused. Who is 'everyone'?

A desirable suburban street in Norwood, South Australia. A semi-trailer truck might have trouble navigating these corners and the driver could argue that this is not a Complete Street because it does not accommodate for them.

A bustling commercial shared street in Adelaide, South Australia. Drivers of large vehicles may complain that the street does not accommodate for them.

Even when a street meets all of these definitions and does its best to have all of the elements (sidewalks, cross walks, traffic lights, trash cans, bicycle lanes) and accommodates everyone (pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, transit riders) it can still ultimately fail at being a pleasant place for people. Rather than focus on Complete Streets, we should focus on building streets for people - People Streets, Humane Streets - and more importantly, focus on giving people a reason to be out and walking about - such as having things worth visiting within walking distances.

A commercial Complete Street with all of the elements in Kilburn, South Australia. The inhumaness of it being so open with nobody else walking around, along with very few things worth walking to within a reasonable distance, and high speed machinary flying past makes you feels incredibly out of place on foot.

A nicely designed segregated street in Surfers Paradise, Queensland. Enough traffic to warrant segregating vehicular traffic, while keeping most of the space allocated for people, with fine-grained destinations you actually want to walk to at street level.