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The Liability of Complete Streets

Can we make our cities safer by re-thinking risk management? Although liability guidelines are set in place for our own well-being, they may be doing more harm than good.



June 18, 2018

At first glance, the term “risk” seems to describe something objective and quantifiable. Look a bit closer, however, and we see that the perception of a risk (and especially what should be done about it) is a social construction. Efforts to manage a risk are based on assumptions surrounding how severe a risk is thought to be, who would be affected, how soon they would be affected and how certain a remedy is to address the problem. These factors can sometimes be quantified, but are usually not objective. They are subject to cultural biases and the outlook of the people considering the risk.

The term “Complete Streets” refers to transportation policies and design approaches that require streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, comfortable travel for users of all ages and abilities, regardless of their mode of transportation. Specifically, Complete Streets emphasize the need to ensure safe travel by persons walking, cycling, on public transportation, or delivering goods. The term is often used by urban planners, traffic engineers and public health practitioners in the United States and Canada to advocate for a shift away from policies and designs that have historically focused exclusively on designing roadways for auto transportation.

A key manifestation of the Complete Streets movement, is the development of guidelines. Cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto have all developed Complete Street Guidelines. The purpose of developing these guidelines has been to update existing road design standards and policies. The guidelines produced in different cities vary, as they have each been developed as reflections of the city’s history, culture, institutional structures, and champions.

While improving road safety outcomes is a fundamental and universally laudable objective, the adoption of unfamiliar design guidance is not always embraced by professional engineers. This reluctance is in part, because of the way in which “risk” is viewed by the engineers. Building streets according to “leading” road design standards may seem like an obvious way to reduce risk, and increase public safety. However, this assumes that the safety evidence is generalizable. If an engineer feels that a local condition makes the safety guidance different from the jurisdiction where the guidance was developed, they may worry about the implications of adopting the new standard in their jurisdiction.

Road safety advocates think about traffic risks as an objective, quantifiable number of injuries and deaths. Meanwhile, practitioners who would institute new road designs that make things safer see risk in an entirely different way. They view risk through the lens of how much liability there may be to applying an unfamiliar design standard. This caution (and sometimes over caution) can be traced in part to how risk is legislated into liability. Part of becoming an engineer is becoming liable for the decisions which you sanction. If a bridge falls down, the engineer who stamped the drawing may face personal liability implications. Similarly, if a road design is constructed and a fatality occurs, the engineer who signed off on the installation could potentially find themselves drawn into a situation where they face personal liability.

The solution is to build up the body of knowledge and public institutions needed for individual engineers to no longer be personally liable for the application of safer road designs. Developing guidelines one city at a time is useful as a cultural exercise, but not exactly efficient from the standpoint of quickly implementing proven, universally good policies. This is why, from a public administration perspective, it is critically important that the “bottom up” efforts of municipal transportation practitioners be supported by “top down” updates to policies and standards at provincial, regional and national levels. The publication of leading safety-oriented design guidance and policies from senior orders of government will expedite the empowerment of individual practitioners, who would otherwise be at risk of personal liability.


Image by New York City Department of Transportation from Flickr