Regional Health In Focus: Complete Streets

complete streets

Complete Streets is a set of design policies that make transportation infrastructure safe and accessible for all users.

Rather than just considering automobiles, communities that adopt Complete Streets policies agree to also make their roadways safe for pedestrians, cyclists, users of transit, and people with disabilities. Techniques are different in each neighborhood and may involve elements such as sidewalks, bicycle lanes, bus lanes, crosswalks, curb extensions, or other projects.

In total, more than 1,200 Complete Streets policies have been passed across the United States. At least 33 state governments, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. have adopted policies so far.

What’s the problem?

While a number of our nation’s roadways have been improved by Complete Streets, many are still designed primarily for automobiles. Particularly in rural areas like the North Country, these roads do a poor job of accommodating other modes of transportation or people of different ability levels. This causes a variety of problems, including:

Pedestrian injuries and fatalities
With higher driving speeds common on rural roads, small town residents are more likely to be involved in roadway fatalities than those living in urban areas.
Health concerns
Lack of routine walking can lead to reduced physical activity and increase one’s chances of becoming obese or developing other chronic conditions. Studies show more people bike and walk in communities where improvements have been made to sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and bike lanes.
Those who are too young, old, poor, or disabled to drive or own a vehicle are isolated from their surroundings and community. In rural areas, high populations of older adults and low income citizens who are less likely to own a car often risk walking or cycling on high-speed highways, or avoid transportation altogether.
Quality of life
Transportation systems that are designed solely for automobiles contribute more heavily to air pollution. They can also decrease opportunities for citizens to interact with their neighbors, lessen home real estate values, and make communities less attractive for new businesses.

Local data:

The North Country Region is rural and is home to a large percentage of older adults and children. The average population density across Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence counties is about 50 people per square mile — significantly lower than the statewide average of 411 people per square mile.

Approximately 2 in 5 North Country adults report they have been diagnosed with at least one of these seven chronic conditions: prediabetes, diabetes, COPD, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, or any mental health condition. Nearly 1 in 5 households report living in poverty.

Around one-third of North Country residents “never” walk around their neighborhoods…

Transportation and accessibility can have a direct impact on many of these conditions, whether for better or worse. Our region’s most recent Community Health Survey provides us with some insight on how our region’s citizens get around.

According to the survey, around one-third of North Country residents “never” walk around their neighborhoods — specifically, 31% in Jefferson County, 37% in Lewis, and 32% in St. Lawrence.

When it comes to transportation to and from work, public transit and bicycling are almost non-existent, with less than 1% of workers relying on each.

Around 6% of adults in our region walk to work, which may not seem like many; however, it is much higher than the national average of 3%. This supports the importance of creating transportation systems that are safe and accessible to pedestrians.

Despite heavy reliance on automobiles for commuting to work, visiting friends, running errands and other daily tasks, around 10% of households in our region do not own vehicles.

complete streets

What can I do to take action?

For individuals...
• Support active transportation in various ways — shovel sidewalks in front of your home or business, avoid parking across crosswalks, or consider walking (rather than driving) for short errands.
• Advocate for Complete Streets by working with neighbors and local policy makers. The National Complete Streets Coalition’s website has free resources for individuals, such as presentations, policy guidance, and workshops.
For communities...
• Create or enhance physical activity environments to be pedestrian and bicycle friendly.
• Support community design and transportation planning policies for walking and other forms of active transport.
• Implement strategies in the National Physical Activity Plan, the National Prevention Strategy, and the CDC Recommendations for Improving Health through Transportation policy.
For health care professionals...
• Offer resources for public transportation to those who do not have vehicles.
• Promote active transportation. If you’re unsure of how to fit this into your practice, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment has a helpful toolkit on this topic.

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