Thinking about Complete Street Costs

Often more economical to build then traditional car-only streets

In many cases a well-designed complete street is less expensive to build than those built under older standards. For example, in De Pere, Wisconsin, the county saved $347,515 (16.5%) by building a narrower major street with roundabouts and bicycle facilities instead of the initially planned four-lane street with traffic signals at two intersections.

Streets are less expensive to build right the first time

We know that, likely as not, ‘doing it right’ (for all users) the first time saves time and money. As an example, if dedicated cycling lanes are required, adding twelve-feet of pavement to an existing street, after the fact, is considerably more expensive then building it right the first time.

“When projects are scoped and programmed without consideration for complete streets, there could be extra cost over the original estimate in order to later address pedestrian, bike, and bus features.” –Gregg Albright, Deputy Director of Planning and Modal Programs, Caltrans

At most adds a small increment to costs

Adding features to make the street safe and convenient for all its users may add a small-percentage. There is opportunity-cost associated with any project, and building a complete street may require additional resources to be found, project scope adjusted, or project schedules re-aligned. However, the costs associated with making streets work for everyone are small, and in some instances, will actually save money. Changing pedestrian signal timing at intersections to a 3.5 ft/sec walking speed adds nothing to the cost of a signal, and adding countdown clocks can be done for as little as $2,000 per intersection. Adding curb bulbs where on-street parking occurs reduces the time for pedestrians to cross the street, allowing more time for automobile movement; this can be a relatively low cost way to improve both pedestrian and automobile access.

Making a street complete for all users varies from street to street, there is no simple cost increment beyond designing a street solely for cars. Often, as written earlier, there is no additional cost, and may be a cost savings. However, cost estimates for Helena’s Centennial Trail indicate that for about $17.34 a foot, we can rebuild sidewalks, cut curbs at intersections, and stripe and sign the streets for bicycle traffic, east of North Montana and west of the Interstate overpass on Boulder. (Project cost, $78,000; estimated linear feet, 4,500). A website designed to help arrive at a benefit-cost analysis of bicycle facilities suggests that bicycle-only related costs (signs, striping) would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000, or about forty-five cents ($0.45) a linear foot.

Reduces overall transportation related costs

Complete streets provide healthy, lower-cost transportation options for our citizens. We know nationally, transportation costs account for about eighteen percent of household expenditures. Capital outlays for cars, repairs, insurance, and fuel takes a big bite out of the average Helenan’s pocketbook. Riding a bike or walking to work, school, or the store is a great way to save money — bikes don’t need windshield washer fluid, ring jobs, or liability insurance. Being willing and able to ride or walk means that we are not held hostage to the increasing price of gasoline.

There is value in decreasing the wear and tear on our streets by decreasing their use by automobiles; less cars, less wear. A trip by bicycle or on foot is one less trip by car. If, for instance, Helena strived to, like in Portland, Oregon, encourage one-quarter of its commuter trips by something other then an automobile, maintenance costs would be decreased.

Complete streets help us cut costs by reducing our need to add automobile-related infrastructure. A street system that encourages bus ridership, cycling, and walking, reduces or eliminates our need to build a community of increasingly busy streets, huge parking lots and towering parking structures. Instead we can enjoy our community of quiet neighborhoods, and accessible businesses and offices, parks and open space.

There is strong local sentiment that cycling is inconvenient and unsafe, but that if Helenans felt safer cycling around town, they’d be more likely to do so. Last year the Independent Record newspaper asked its readers, “Do you think Helena is sufficiently bike and pedestrian friendly?” Sixty-eight percent (68%) of 1,224 respondents said NO. Independent Record, June 1, 2010

Comments included statements such as:

  • “Helena is a great […] but is woefully behind the times in bike and pedestrian infrastructure.”
  • Helena needs a “coherent bike path system.” We need to “design and mark our roadways to accommodate bike travel. Pedestrians are often put in dangerous situations […] We need a comprehensive travel plan in Helena that works for everybody, including bikers and pedestrians.”
  • “I don’t feel safe [riding my bicycle] in Helena.”
  • “If we want to be bicycle friendly, there needs to be a network that connects the dots […] people decide [cycling] is just too dangerous and continue to drive their cars.”

Helena can manage of the seemingly never-ending growth of automobile traffic and busier streets by accommodating the needs of all our users. When more of us feel safe riding to work, school, or the store on our bicycles, there will be more bicycles and fewer cars on our streets and in our parking lots. Bicycles take up less room then cars, and don’t wear down pavement.

Improves citizens’ health and lower health-related costs

In Moses Lake, Washington, the community has adopted a Healthy Communities Action Plan, in direct response to a 127% increase in the adult obesity rate there. New zoning rules require wider sidewalks and other features that improve accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists.

Obesity has reached epidemic levels. Nationally, 32% of adults are obese. 55% of adults get less then a minimum amount of exercise; we are literally dying from our comfortable style-of-life. Diet and special exercise programs are not particularly effective long-term strategies for either reducing weight or increasing fitness. What works is getting active as part of ones’ normal day. Sidewalks and safe roads make it easy for folks to walk and cycle, promoting routine walking and cycling. For instance: “One study found that 43% of people with safe places to walk within 10 minutes of home met recommended activity levels; among those without safe places to walk just 27% met the recommendation. Residents are 65% more likely to walk in a neighborhood with sidewalks” (ibid).

A complete streets ordinance will help Helena build streets and sidewalks that make it easy for Helenans to “get moving,” stay fit, and stay healthy.

A 2010 Lewis and Clark County Earth Day Survey polled County employees, asking “What would encourage you to ride or walk more often?”

  • 62.6% responded, “More bike lanes/paths”
  • 34.4% asked for “More sidewalks”
  • 16.6% suggested “More crosswalks”

DuPage County, Illinois, and Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health (Washington) both link complete streets policies to improving the health of their citizens.

Reduces environmental costs

Pollution costs real dollars, in its avoidance, abatement, or simply dealing with its health- and environmental-consequences. Helena’s Climate Change Task Force (CCTF) recommended that we reduce our emission of greenhouse gases; for example, it recommended that City employees reduce their total (automobile) commuting mileage by ten-percent (10%). Additionally, towards reducing the environmental impact of transportation in Helena, the CCTF recommended that the City adopt the Non-motorized Travel Advisory Council’s recommendation for adopting a complete streets ordinance.

Adds value to business districts and neighborhoods

“When Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District slimmed its traffic lanes to slow down cars and accommodate other users, merchants reported the street changes enhanced the area. Nearly 40 percent of merchants reported increased sales, and 60 percent reported more area residents shopping locally due to reduced travel time and convenience. Overall, two-thirds of respondents described the increased levels of pedestrian and bicycling activity.”

Complete streets boost property values. Generally homeowners are willing to pay more to live in walkable communities. “In Chicago, homes within a half-mile of a suburban rail station on average sell for $36,000 more than houses located further away” (ibid).

In urban areas across the United States, safe and convenient access to amenities such as trails increases the value of homes: “A study completed by the Office of Planning in Seattle, Washington, for the 12 mile Burke-Gilman trail was based upon surveys of homeowners and real estate agents. The survey of real estate agents revealed that property near, but not immediately adjacent to the trail, sells for an average of 6 percent more. The survey of homeowners indicated that approximately 60 percent of those interviewed believed that being adjacent to the trail would either make their home sell for more or have no effect on the selling price” (Seattle Office of Planning, 1987).

More general and extensive reference:

Contributes to a more livable, economical community for all

“Boulderʼs complete streets approach has transformed how we look at our transportation system. The city leaders made a conscious decision to provide multimodal options, and have focused on our investments accordingly. We believe this is a sound financial approach to increasing mobility and supporting the quality of life enjoyed by those who live and work in Boulder.” –Martha Roskowski, Program Manager, GO Boulder

Building our streets right, that is, so that they work for everyone, is a long-term investment in Helena’s health and livability. As a community we value all our citizens’ and visitors’ safety and convenience, so we work hard to build our new neighborhoods with tree-lined sidewalks and ADA-compliant curb cuts.

Helena’s population of non-drivers is sizable and growing fast. Census projections estimate that by 2030, one in four Lewis & Clark County residents will be sixty-five or older (a 217% increase from the year 2000).

According to the 2000 Census, twenty-nine percent of Helena’s population is under fifteen or over eighty-four years of age. We know, nationally, that twenty-one percent (21%) of those over sixty-five years of age don’t drive, and we assume (and hope as well) that those under fifteen are not behind the wheel. Nationally, more then half of all non-drivers stay at home on a given day because they lack transportation options

Nationally, fifty-four percent (54%) of older Americans say they’d walk and ride more often if things improved. Complete streets is a process for improving Helena’s transportation infrastructure, for all our users.

Complete streets let many of our citizens move about Helena under their own steam. According to the 2000 Census, 8,138, or about 14% of L&C County population is disabled. These citizens have a right to access Helena’s work sites, schools, stores, and recreational sites. Access is facilitated, and rendered more cost effective, by an accommodating transportation system. Complete streets make it possible for all our citizens to move about under their own steam, if they wish to.


Making our streets ‘complete’ is an incremental process rather then something that happens all-at-once. It will take time. And instead of being a prescription, a complete streets ordinance mandates a process, one that takes into account all modes of travel. It doesn’t diminish the need to plan for automobiles, rather it just accommodates, if appropriate, transit users, cyclists, and pedestrians, as well as automobile drivers.

Complete streets, that is, streets that are safe and convenient for all, is a process that simply uses existing resources (time, our staff’s smarts and good efforts, money, our streets) differently. Complete streets is a method of analyzing the needs of all our citizens, identifying needs and opportunities, and acting upon these over time.

In some cases, e.g., our Public Works Department will decide that we need to sign and stripe a street (that has been designated as a bicycle route) according to our signing and striping engineering specifications (e.g., paint=white, striping=4″ wide, etc). In most other cases, so long as bicyclists and pedestrians can use the street (and sidewalks) safely and conveniently, there will be no overt sign that this street is in fact a ‘complete street’.

Further, if it is impossible to add facilities for one or more groups of users, or if the cost of doing so far outweighs any reasonably estimated benefit, then beyond the initial planning process, no special treatment for cyclists, pedestrians, or transit riders will be added to a new or rebuild street project.

Good Reads: My Reference Shelf

These are reports or books I have found useful in my work with the Non-Motorized Travel Advisory Council (NMTAC). I’m a retired librarian. Forgive me, I can’t help myself from recommending these to all NMTAC members, City and County staff, and others interested in improving the safety and convenience of bicycling and walking in Helena.

The plans, from Portland, Minneapolis, Oregon, and so forth, represent the best current thinking in designing for safe and convenient bike and pedestrian transportation. Helena may not have millions of people or dollars, but the process, the design and engineering disciplines represented by these reports can and should inform our progress.

Helena’s Transportation Plan includes a Chapter 6: Non-Motorized Transportation, which in 2004 was written to guide the City and County.

Other Montana communities have developed bicycle and pedestrian programs.

Mia Birk’s book, available soon at Big Sky Cyclery, is an often amusing, always inspiring account of her time in Portland, Oregon’s, during the early days of Portland’s becoming “a world-class bicycling city.”

Oregon’s statewide plan includes lots of very clear descriptions of engineering standards and can be a useful surrogate for the discipline’s gold-standard AASHTO Bicycle Guide and AASHTO Pedestrian Guide. PDFs.

I will update this list with your suggestions.