Complete Streets: What they are and why we need them

Conversations about the architecture of Toronto’s streets tend to be terribly divisive. You’re either a cyclist or a driver. A transit user or a pedestrian. And don’t even think about trying to speak with the other side. No, no, in this town, we prefer to battle it out in the streets or during election campaigns. Or in the comment sections of blogs and media outlets.

Thankfully, the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT) is trying to change the tenor of this conversation.

Back in late-April, TCAT hosted its inaugural Complete Streets Forum. The conference expanded the mandate and scope of previous bike summits to draw in movers and shakers of every description. There were pavement pounders, there were gung-ho cyclists, there were dyed-in-the-wool Metropass holders, and there were car commuters. There were even folks who do all four. In spite of their differences, participants in this year’s conference share the belief that streets are our most sacred public space and that we can make them work better.

But what does better look like?

TCAT and other community partners are advancing the idea of complete streets. The term, coined by Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Complete Streets Coalition, refers to streets which “provide safe access for all road users, including pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users and motorists and are comfortable for people with disabilities, children, families, and the elderly.” Adaptable to the particularities of a given place, complete streets are safe and accessible for a variety of users.

“Streets give a lot of information to drivers,” explains McCann. “We need the road to communicate with us about safety and the presence of other users on the road way.” By shifting the balance of facilities to improve accessibility, complete streets offer a profound opportunity to change the way that we relate to the city and get around. Just look at College Street – with connected bike lanes, wide sidewalks, regular streetcars and several lanes of traffic, it supports the diversity of Toronto travelers.

Most notably, New York City has developed and begun to implement complete streets across Manhattan. Janette Sadik-Kahn, comminsionoer of transportation in NYC, discussed her city’s approach to complete streets the last time she was in Toronto. You can listen to her speech on episode 005 of Spacing Radio.

Complete streets are compelling in part because re-allocation of street facilities is demonstrably win-win-win: improving economic, traffic congestion and health outcomes.

Critics frequently cite economic concerns associated with the re-allocation of street space away from motorized vehicles. They argue that a lack of parking space will drive customers away from local business and make deliveries impossible. Taking a lane away from car traffic will increase congestion and negatively impact trade.

Eva Ligeti, Executive Director of the Clean Air Partnership, challenged the correlation often made between motor vehicle traffic and economic prosperity. Citing a 2009 study of transportation choices and economic outcomes in the Annex neighbourhood — check out Spacing’s lively discussion when the report was released — Ligeti claims that cyclists and pedestrians visit local businesses more frequently and spend more money than their car-bound counterparts. Re-dedicating space to cyclists and pedestrians won’t dry up business; it might even improve it.

As the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton enter a period of sustained growth, figuring out how to move people at the lowest public and social costs is a top priority. McCann argues that complete streets are an inexpensive way to increase road capacity, offering Portland, Oregon as an example.

“In Portland, the entire cycling network cost $60 million to build: the same amount as one mile of greenfield roadway. Between 1991 and 2008, the Hawthorne Bridge saw a 20 percent increase in passenger volume, but only a one percent increase in motor vehicle traffic. The bulk of new traffic was traveling by bike or on foot. Improvements to cycling and pedestrian facilities made this increased capacity possible.”

Another key benefit of complete streets is their role in improving health outcomes in the city. Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, David McKeown was clear: “We are not a healthy city. Fifty percent of adults in Toronto are not active enough to maintain or improve their health. We are in the midst of an epidemic of Type II diabetes and the outlook for the future is not any better – 10 to 25 percent of Toronto teens are obese. These problems are particularly prevalent in low-income neighbourhoods.”

But McKeown sees possibility in our streets: “The shape of our communities is one of the most important determinants of our health.” Nearly 17 percent of trips taken in this city are within walking distance (less than 2 km), 40 percent within biking distance (less than 5km). By making our streets more accessible, we can tap into the latent health benefits of daily physical activity.

Meanwhile, complete streets help to improve air quality, reduce traffic injuries and noise and support the development of social networks and corresponding improvements in mental health. These positive impacts are so strong, McKeown argues, that they help to mitigate the negative effects of poverty on health. Not bad for some concrete and a little paint.

If the benefits of complete streets are not clear enough, the costs of inaction are. “We are paying the costs of incomplete streets in other budget areas,” says McKeown. “A 30 percent decrease in vehicle pollution would save 190 lives and $900 million annually.”

With over 130 Complete Streets policies enacted in the US, there is a growing body of evidence to support the complete streets concept here in Canada. While enthusiastic, McCann cautioned the conference that “complete streets are not a silver bullet to the perfect city. These policies work because they zero in on the transportation sector. Complete streets policies do not directly address other aspects of the built environment, such as land use.”

Yet with streets comprising 25 to 30% of the land area in our cities, the potential for marked impacts is large.

“As a major component of the public realm, streets ought to behave in the public interest,” said Dan Leeming of The Planning Partnership. Complete streets are one way to codify the public interest into the urban landscape.

I’ll be following up this call to action with a discussion of how we go about building complete streets.

Photo of Copenhagen complete street by Matthew Blackett


  1. God, this city. Can’t we at least close Kensington to cars on weekends? Is there anything more absurd than hundreds crowded onto narrow sidewalks, so a few can crawl through in their cars? We only get this ‘walkable neighbourhood’ closed a dozen Sundays of the year, though there’s no transit through it to divert, and the roads are useless to through traffic. In Tokyo, Shimokitazawa is much like it (but more extensive) and traffic is barred everyday of the week!

    But BIA’s are so stupid they think their customers all come by car, and they need the parking in front of each store. Yes, two spots in front of your store keep you open… On the other hand, if the street is entirely unpleasant to me as a pedestrian/cyclist/transit user because of narrow sidewalks and car-caused congestion, I don’t go there, and I don’t: Kensington, Queen West, the Annex… My friend, an ‘urbane’ planner no less, argued with me on the side of parking. Even pointing out to him that every interesting city in the world does not prioritize parking made no impression. Hopeless.

  2. Responding to JamesMallon: you ask, “Why can’t we at least close Kensington to cars…?” And then you say “I don’t go there.” While I imagine your intentions are good, I find it very troubling that people who don’t have anything to do with an area want to impose their vision on it. As I recall, business owners AND residents in the area didn’t want to go fully car-free but instead have it car-free once a month over the summer. I think it should be (mostly) up to the people who live in and regularly ‘use’ the area to do what they want with the area (for the most part, with in reason, etc.) and it’s completely reasonable that they wouldn’t want to adopt someone else’s plan for their neighbourhood. I would hope that people would say something like “I want ‘complete streets’ where I live and/or run a business” and don’t say things like “That area where I never go should have ‘complete streets.'”

    I live close to Kensington and go there often. I think it’s fantastic as it is. I like it’s chaotic messiness – it is completely urban. I think if Kensington were go fully car-free, the place would be worse. Many of the stores would have to stop stocking items, some stores would have to close and, to compensate for the hassle/expense of getting their wares into their stores without delivery trucks, just about everything would cost more. But if the people *of* Kensington decided to go car-free, then I don’t think I have a ‘right’ to tell them not to.

    More generally, I find that the people of Toronto often forget they’re in a city. They enjoy all the things the city offers (lots of people, events, shops – life) and then they’re annoyed when they move through the city because there are lots of people, events, shops -life- in their way.

  3. Mark, regarding your second paragraph — making Kensington car-free wouldn’t necessarily mean *completely* banishing vehicles. The pedestrianized zones that I’m familiar with (in Britain) still allow service vehicles to enter (perhaps only at off-peak times).  So I don’t think it would have to impact upon shops in the way that you say.  

  4. That’s completely daft logic, Mark. I don’t go there because I find it unpleasant to traverse, as I find more and more of this city over time, so spend more and more time closer to home. I would love to go out more to more places, and I do when I am in Tokyo – my second home due to marriage.

    Tokyo has a few areas always closed to traffic, and quite a few closed one day of the week, and excellent transit to get to any one of them. The typical argument coming is to say that we are so much smaller than Tokyo, so cannot be anything like them: but there are smaller cities much more walkability oriented than Toronto, and Tokyo has something like double the walkable areas on a per-capita basis to Toronto.

    And as for local residents not wanting cars in Kensington, I do believe, like Jane Jacobs, that such decisions should be local; however, may I have access to your survey…? Also, is that residents, or the BIA who made that decision. Finally, your logic that there would be a downturn in business because cars can’t get in is daft: sit on a corner and count the bodies moving by in cars, and those moving by with other means.

    Finally, I like ‘chaotic messiness’ in Tokyo, because it connotes the parts of the city made lively by daily living, unlike tourist zones. Why is it in Toronto that it is an excuse to leave things $#!++y: poor transit, car-clogged streets, litter, narrow sidewalks…

  5. James,

    Toronto isn’t Tokyo.

    We don’t have anywhere near the critical mass to emulate them.  They’re so big and crowded that privately run subways can be profitable there, for crying out loud!

    The same is true for places like Kensington.  It’s grown into what it is very organically and a sudden permanent change could damage it for the worse.  Traffic is very slow, there’s little safety risk, and pedestrians use the road to walk all the time. The locals still depend on the automobile though you may not see it first hand.  Also, as much as I hate the suburbanites piling in with their Yukons and Suburbans, they bring in a lot of money that allows the businesses there to survive.

    While I appreciate what you’re trying to do, you need to read your Jane Jacobs again and ponder the effects of external top-down wishful thinking from people with no direct stake in the neighbourhood.

  6. Responding to Mark Jull: I also don’t go to Kensington very often, not even on pedestrian sundays, which I would really like to go to. The reason I don’t is because the infrastructure to get from my place to Kensington by bicycle, my means of transit, is pretty pathetic (I live in the inner suburbs). If more streets were friendly to cyclists, I would definitely go more places. To me this argument very much mirrrors the no smoking in bars policy. I use to rarely go out to bars because the cigarette smoke bothered me so much. Now that the bars have all gone smoke free, I’ve pumped incredible amounts of my pay cheque into these establishments. The argument from the bar / restaurant owners at the time was, if they go smoke free they will lose business. But they never factored in the business they were already losing from the 4 out of 5 non-smoking adults that didn’t frequent their establishments due to the unpleasantness of the secondhand smoke.


  7. Kensington should get some kind of woonerf treatment with the removal of sidewalks and installation of bollards for pedestrian-only access (also to keep the street safe for kids, wheelchairs, etc). Parts of the Market can be pedestrianized at specific times of the day by simply installing bollards that raise in and out of the ground.

    Here is an example from Malmo, Sweden. This strip becomes pedestrianized during weekends and holidays. The cobblestones keep through-traffic away but allow for service vehicles, etc.

  8. Arguably, there’s a fair degree of precedent for the spirit of Complete Streets in our Official Plans,- but somehow, gee, we don’t do terribly well doing them.
    The best/worst example is that Bloor Transformation – which didn’t see bike safety as anything to worry about beyond the bare minimum Metro-era standard, now with sharrows. Worse, by somehow managing to mis-read the EA classification criteria, where the tipping point to a more rigourous EA is a mere $2.2M, this now-$30M streetscaping avoided most public inputs, and thus is wasting the opportunities for easy bike lanes and bike safety for the next 30 years (eg. Spadina) by a .8M splash zone between new planter and new curb. Sad – and maybe we should be looking around more at our own bit of the world, and watch the civic agendas a bit more, and be less trusting of the inherent wisdom and principles of the “progressives” of Council.
    But it’s also two area MPPs, Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Tabuns – they have not been too helpful in helping to get cycling safer either, nor EAs respected, despite the anomaly that the Jarvis near-overnight repainting and the c. 3-year Bloor project fall into the same A+ class..
    As for biking – world-clast may cover it, as we now seem to be catching up to Burlington.
    I’d suggest focussing on the part of Bloor between Ave. Rd. and Spadina as the next litmus test – even though arguably we should rebuild the curb zone of this rebuilding, and since they just added $5M, money isn’t a problem, and it remains fairly unsafe for cycling…

  9. “Toronto isn’t Tokyo.” Truer words are rarely said. It’s also not NY, Paris, London, Amsterdam… Here’s what it is: a middle-American city. It’s the lack of imagination of the ‘any change will be WORSE!’-people who make it so. If people are defending the inanity of the status quo in Kensington, I have no more hope: the roads have 4 times the space as the sidewalks, but there are far more than four times as many people on the sidewalk.

  10. Matthew: Woonerf are pretty nice, but why in Kensington? Kensington has somehow come to be an amazing urban space and I think we’d be better to learn from it rather than change it. I think a woonerf treatment is more appropriate to a ‘failing-yet-has-potential’ street – such as Yonge.
    I’m beginning to think of woonerfs as the “cul-du-sac-ification” of the urban. It’s so clean, smooth, and promises everything. For me, the urban includes messiness, grime and grit. 

  11. I think a woonerf is actually what Kensington already is. The onyl thing I’d like to see is the sidewalks blend right into the road. Woonerfs can have a cleansing effect, but I don’t think Kensington could ever be neat and tidy. It is inherently messy.

  12. My predictions:

    This issue will be discussed for 3-5 years

    A half-assed, half-erf will be proposed

    It will have the potential to be as charming as Dundas Square

    A councillor will accidentally vote yes/no, no/yes to the half-assed proposal

    The issue will be discussed for another 3-5 years

  13. I wonder, do “Complete Streets” regard streets only on transportation terms? Of course, it’s important to have streets that make moving easy, but it seems to me like the more commercially (and socially – i.e., a place you’ll want to be, moreso than a place you’ll want to go through) successful streets involve a lot of sitting and standing — and it’s narrow enough to reasonably j-walk.

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