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AARP’s One-Minute Guide to the Complete Streets Act

What’s at Stake:

Our nation’s transportation infrastructure is broken and needs to be fixed.  Between 1993 and 2003, nearly 52,000 pedestrians and more than 7,400 bicyclists were killed in road accidents; studies show that designing streets with pedestrians in mind may reduce pedestrian risk by as much as 28 percent. 

Unfortunately, among the people most hurt by inadequate roads and transportation choices are older Americans.  For so many older Americans, their mobility is undermined by crosswalks that are too long, communities without sidewalks, and bus stops that are too dangerous to get to on foot.  A recent AARP poll found 47% of Americans over age 50 said they could not cross main roads near their home safely.  Almost 40% said their neighborhoods do not have adequate sidewalks, while another 55% reported no bike lanes or paths, and 48% reported no comfortable place to wait for the bus.  In 2005, older Americans made up 20% of all pedestrian fatalities.

Lack of access to safe streets, roads and public transportation undermines the health and well-being of older Americans. More than 50% of older Americans who do not drive stay home on a given day, in part because they lack transportation options.  Non-driving seniors make 65 percent fewer trips to visit family, friends or go to places of worship. And, many report they don’t ask for rides for fear of being a burden to family and friends.  With the number of Americans age 65 and over expected to rise to 20 percent of the nation’s total population, America needs safe and accessible transportation choices.

The health and well-being ofour nation’s children also suffers at the hands of poor transportation infrastructure.  As recently as 30 years ago, up to 70 percent of children were walking or riding bikes to school.  Currently, the number has dropped to only 10 percent.  Parents report that traffic safety is the main reason they do not permit their children to walk or bike to school.  Lack of physical activity among children has caused a major spike in cases of diabetes, childhood obesity and other preventative diseases.
For the heath and well-being of all – and particularly for children, people with disabilities and older Americans -- we urge federal legislation that will keep motorists, transit vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians safe.  

Legislative Summary:

The Complete Streets Act, sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in the Senate, and by Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) in the House of Representatives, ensures that future transportation investments made by State Departments of Transportation and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) promotes the design of streets that are safe for all of those using the street – including motorists, bus riders, pedestrians and cyclists of all ages and abilities.

The legislation requires State Departments of Transportation and MPOs to adopt “complete streets” policies for federally-funded projects within two years.  These “complete streets” policies must ensure that the needs of all users of the transportation system are taken into account during the design, planning, construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, maintenance, and operations stages of transportation project implementation.

The legislation also gives state, regional and local jurisdictions flexibility to exempt projects from having to comply with these “complete streets” policies.  Projects may be exempted from complete streets principles if users are prohibited by law from using a given right-of- way (such as freeways), if the cost of implementing complete streets principles would be prohibitive, or if the existing and planned population and employment densities around a given roadway is low enough that there is a clear lack of need for “complete streets.”

AARP Position: 

AARP supports the Complete Streets Act.  This legislation will give mid-life and older Americans many more options – in addition to driving themselves -- to travel safely to their destinations.  A recent AARP poll found that more than half (54%) of older adults who reported an inhospitable walking, bicycling and transit environment outside their homes said they would walk, bicycle, and take public transit more if their streets were improved. A majority of older people support “complete street” policies.

Legislative Timeline: 

AARP’s goal is for the Complete Streets Act to be included in the reauthorization of the surface transportation law which expires on September 30, 2009.

To learn more about how Complete Streets can make roads safer for older adults, see the AARP Public Policy Institute report, “Planning Complete Streets for an Aging America” at

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