Pedestrian city crosswalk

©Michal-Parzuchowski - Unsplash

Complete Streets are streets designed, constructed, and operated to allow safe and comfortable use by people of all ages and all mobility levels.

When enacted on a state, local, or community level, the Complete Streets concept can improve the safety and health of all residents and allow older adults the opportunity to age in place, said a panel of experts Wednesday at the National Association of REALTORS®’ Complete Streets Issues webinar. The panelists explored the benefits of a Complete Streets policy and offered examples of how such a policy can be implemented.

One of the key components of Complete Streets is safety, and safe options should be available for all people, whether they are walking, biking, driving, taking public transit, or using assisted mobility devices, said Emily Schweninger, deputy director of thriving communities at Smart Growth America. Pedestrians, in particular, are at risk in many communities, Schweninger stated, noting that SGA’s 2021 Dangerous by Design report found that from 2010 to 2019, there was a 45% increase in people struck and killed by drivers while walking and that in 2019, an average of 17 pedestrians were killed every day. One of the major contributors to these deaths is the way the roads themselves are planned. “It’s really about design,” said Schweninger. “We’ve overdesigned our roads for cars and haven’t taken people into consideration.”

Implementing Complete Streets policies is an important step in empowering older Americans to age with independence, said Coralette Hannon, senior legislative representative for AARP. Hannon offered some sobering statistics for older adults, whom she termed the “most vulnerable road users.”

  • Older adults can outlive their ability to drive by an average of seven to 10 years.
  • Older adults are over-represented in fatal crashes, both as pedestrians and as drivers.
  • Almost half of older adults responding to an AARP study reported that they are unable to cross the main roads in their neighborhoods safely.

“The unique needs of older adults must be integral to how we design our streets,” said Hannon.

In 2020, AARP and NAR partnered to integrate AARP’s Livability Index tool into the REALTORS Property Resource® website and mobile app, offering users enhanced ability to consider aging when searching for a place to live.

Complete Street policies also emphasize health and physical activity, offering people the option to walk, bike, or roll to parks, businesses, schools, and jobs, said Ben Schmauss, policy engagement manager for the Voices for Healthy Kids program with the American Heart Association. When introducing Complete Streets policies, Schmauss said it’s crucial to listen to the residents of the community, particularly in areas that have historically been affected by redlining or other discriminatory practices. “The community’s focus may be something different from your focus,” said Schmauss. “You need to listen and see what their needs truly are.”

Aubrie Kobernus, CEO of the REALTORS® Land Institute, shared her experience successfully introducing a Complete Streets policy to Memphis, Tenn. While working as director of governmental affairs for the Memphis Area Association of REALTORS® in 2011, Kobernus was instrumental in assembling a broad coalition of community stakeholders that developed a draft Complete Streets policy. In 2012, the Memphis mayor signed an executive order enacting the policy.

NAR also provided support to the initiative, awarding MAAR a Smart Growth Grant.

The Complete Streets policy enabled Memphis to grow from less than 2 miles of bike lanes in 2011 to over 300 miles today, said Kobernus. Roads have been narrowed and traffic has been slowed in some areas, she added, resulting in safer streets for pedestrians and increased sales for businesses along those slower lanes.

“I can say that Complete Streets has helped Memphis,” said Kobernus. “I completely believe that Memphis is a better place to live, work, and play.”