The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


"Good Roads" and the push for complete streets today

Today's push to improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists mirrors the push a century ago for paved roads. Both ideas stated small but grew to become popular movements by increasing public awareness.

1912 Good Roads map. Photo by Orange County Archives on Flickr.

Over 100 years ago, maps of "Good Roads" led the push for paved roads by letting travelers know which roads were likely to be passable. In Slate magazine, Rebecca Onion recently posted an 1897 map of "Good Roads" in and around Philadelphia. Onion says that maps like these were a necessity in a time where standards on road quality and the funding for infrastructure was haphazard and sometimes non-existent.

Efforts like this are still happening today. While most of our roads and highways are now paved, many communities recognize that our streets need infrastructure upgrades in order to help more people feel safe while traveling on foot or by bike, as well as driving.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the "Good Roads" movement pushed governments to pave more roads to accommodate the newly-invented bicycle. Today, there is a push to create protected spaces for cyclists to use. Many cities are adopting "complete streets" policies that seek to standardize our street infrastructure and emphasize that roads are safe and accessible for all users whether they're on foot, riding a bike, or driving.

Like the "Good Roads" movements, maps are an important tool in advocating for complete streets. Both advocacy groups and local governments publish maps that show where the best routes to bike are. This isn't a new idea, either. Bicycle maps were being published in California as early as 1896.

In every debate over a new bike lane or changes to street parking, opponents sometimes argue that the status quo is fine and question why it should change. "Good Roads" maps show that our infrastructure is always changing, and the desire for better and more accommodating streets is nothing new.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He has lived all over Northern Virginia and now lives in Burke.  


Yes good article. The weakness with Complete Streets policy is that infrastructure improvement/creation for active transportation (such as protected bike tracks) is dependent on the agenda to improve/create infrastructure for automobiles.

This ties up funds so they can't be used, for instance, to fill in gaps in a bike trail network or sidewalk network independent of roadwork.

Complete Streets is a good policy but its lacking. We need a policy that frees funds to complete active transportation networks regardless of the agenda/plans for road building.

by Tina on Nov 27, 2013 1:14 pm • linkreport

Agree- good article. 'Complete Streets' is good in principle but I'll add another critique. It's easy to pass a motion adopting a Complete Streets policy, but it doesn't necessarily mean anything will change. Complete Streets only requires roadways to be designed 'with all users in mind'. Almost anything is consistent with that. There are no minimums standards and there is no enforcement. This is a problem, because sometimes the National Complete Streets Coalition talks of success in terms of the number of municipalities which have adopted Complete Streets policies. Just adopting a policy changes nothing, and in some cases it is a substitute for real action.

by renegade09 on Nov 27, 2013 1:35 pm • linkreport

Thanks. Appropriately for the holdiday, this is a more uplifting way of looking at it than the way I usually tell the story. We should be thankful for the civic spirit that aninated both the Good Roads and Complete Streets movements.

by JimT on Nov 27, 2013 2:24 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us