Stories From the Field with Tracy McMillan: Complete Streets, Equity and COVID-19

What makes a street complete?

In the Spring of 2020, Charles T. Brown, Founder and Managing Principal of Equitable Cities LLC, sat down for a series of virtual interviews with Esther Rivera, the Deputy Director of California Walks; Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Inter Agency Relations at the City of Oakland Mayor’s Office; and Tracy McMillan, Senior Associate at Nelson\Nygaard. Brown led conversations with each transportation professional about complete streets, equity, and COVID-19. The video "What makes a street complete?" highlights each professional’s insights on the meaning and future of complete streets. 

This installment of Stories From the Field features the interview with Tracy McMillan, a self-described public health transportation planner and Senior Associate at Nelson\Nygaard. She earned her master’s degree from Emory University and went on to earn her PhD at UC Irvine. She has additional experience as a professor, in private consulting, with her own tech company, and as staff at SafeTREC.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Thank you for giving us your time today. Please tell us a little about your organization and the role you play within that organization currently.

I work for Nelson\Nygaard. We do work across the country to make communities better places for all. We focus on transportation planning and specifically working on sustainable, multimodal, and equitable spaces for communities. I focus a lot on transportation safety and particularly on populations that are disproportionately impacted by safety conditions within our communities.

What brought you to this space?

I came to transportation planning from public health. Coming from public health, I was an early person in physical activity promotion and the built environment when the CDC was just starting to move into that space. We were very active in the field saying people should get outside and be active and walk and experience their community. It was hypocritical in so many ways because people don't have the same resources within their communities. How can I tell someone to go out and go for a walk that's good for their health when we haven't provided them a sidewalk? They're risking their life from a traffic safety standpoint to go out and work on their cardiovascular health and their mental health. I'm proud that the dialogue shifted to look at the environmental and policy barriers to physical activity. That was critical in getting us to much of where we are today in terms of looking at how spaces are designed and for the programs and policies that support health within communities. So that was the impetus for me to move to eventually be sitting here as a transportation planner.

Let's move into the conversation about complete streets, or the lack thereof. In your opinion, what makes a street complete?

I think about the infrastructure that goes into the street and whether it is a safe and supportive environment to enable people using all modes of transportation to get from point A to point B to meet their daily needs in the most efficient way possible. Additionally, we don't prefer one mode over another, except maybe when we put walking and bicycling and transit, which are more sustainable modes of transportation, over the movement of the single occupancy vehicle. I also think about complete streets from a programmatic standpoint, the non-infrastructure component. What are those policy and social supports that go into making sure that the street serves the needs of all people? That is related to more than just the way a street is built. I think there's a lot of movement now at [agencies] to make some fundamental policy changes that will help make streets more complete or enable the infrastructure component of it.

I appreciate the fact that you look beyond just the infrastructure and focused on some of the more social aspects of the street as well. Continuing along those lines, what are some impacts of incomplete streets in general and particularly with regards to social equity?

We disconnect communities and we cut them off from resources. We also place people at greater risk, including health risks, by having incomplete streets. We have constraints on mobility through an incomplete street.

On the other hand, a complete street can help to move people through a space. The better we are at moving people through a space in a sustainable way [the better they can] meet the needs they have within their community. Ultimately I think when we have incomplete streets connections are broken and those outcomes I think we seek are at risk. And where we put our investments or not can create disproportionate and greater inequities in communities.

Have you witnessed inequities in the distribution of resources?

There are significant differences in communities in terms of the infrastructure that exists - whether it's the presence of a sidewalk, the quality of that sidewalk, the resources that exist within the community, access to stores, and access to other activities of daily living. We witness inequities in these realms in our communities on a daily basis. We're doing a little better in some places and people are more conscious of it. So that's a big change that's happened.

Who is this collective ‘we’ that you speak of?

I'll say the planning field and the public health field, the two spaces I feel like I sit.

What are some challenges to advancing complete streets in California?

I'll answer that from the perspective that I have as a consultant. I know that there's been a lot of work that the staff within Caltrans has been doing at the headquarters level to change things that have been set in stone as policies and practices for some time, kind of shifting the status quo. There's been a lot of push but there is also resistance so there's education that has to happen professionally as well as crossing outside of our silos and engaging people to help with that education.

You've been fortunate to work inside and outside of the academies. What role could universities play in advancing complete streets?

I think they're critically important to educating future [transportation professionals.] They play a role in educating the students that are in their classrooms now, but also in reaching out to the communities and helping to educate within the communities through collaborations to help people understand the importance of complete streets. Universities have a level of credibility and the benefit of time and thought to examine and analyze things. As consultants we take the work that's done at the universities and we're applying it in the field.

On a scale of one to ten, ten being greatest, how would you score public outreach and engagement in California?

I certainly want to say that I can only speak from my experience and my exposures. Maybe a five or six. I think that there's a lot of room for improvement in terms of the intention and the authenticity that we put into engaging communities so that it's not just an afterthought, something we're squeezing into a project budget or just ticking a box. Rather we want to think of that engagement as driving a project. I think that's our firm’s intent with engagement. It's certainly challenging when you get a scope of work or a project budget and engagement doesn't feel like it's an integral part of the work you're being asked to do. With some of the project budgets that you're given, the costs of true engagement alone are not part of the total project budget. We also haven't done a good enough job of working with those we should be engaging. That's a collective “we”.

What do you think the future of complete streets is now given the impact of COVID-19?

I think COVID-19 has allowed us to see many things, good and bad. I think the good that it’s allowed us to see from a complete street standpoint that there's a lot of space in our public right-of-way. At times the demands for it are different and we can shift over time. We can increase mobility, safety, and comfort for multiple modes and still accommodate the traditional mode of transport. Certainly, COVID also pointed out where the disconnects are. Thinking of complete streets not just as the street infrastructure that exists within our communities, but also the services that exist on those streets, when we sheltered in place, how disconnected and how cut off from resources were we? Who was disproportionately impacted by that? Who is unable to access their place of employment? If they're able to go to the grocery or seek healthcare, is that possible within their neighborhood? Is there green space or public space to be able to step outside the home and get some of the important mental health benefits that are provided through being outside, being exposed to nature or just open space, public space within your community and feeling comfortable in that way? If we're able to hold on to some of the lessons that we've learned in the past few weeks it would be great but I'm concerned that we won't. There is already a rush to return to normalcy but there are also communities across the globe that are working to hold on permanently to some of the temporary changes that they've made to streets. Hopefully they'll do that.

What do you feel has been the most important lesson learned?

I think that people can change behavior. We don't spend enough time or enough money to really challenge people to change behavior and to give programs enough opportunity to move through that process of behavior change. This shifted many of us in some way into a massive behavior change experiment. I think it's helped to show individuals that there's a different way to do things. It has also shown agencies and organizations and businesses that behavior change is possible.

In the context of complete streets, what are some solutions that we can implement today, for the future?

I am very supportive of the changes that are currently underway in California. The upstream solutions or changes to policy and programming and funding are critical to be able to see change in the future in regards to complete streets. I would also like us to be more intentional with engagement. There's still much to be improved there and that's critical in order for complete streets to be complete for everyone from an infrastructure to programmatic to a policy standpoint. To me, those are some of the fundamental changes, more upstream solutions to make that fundamental change.

What tools do you think young women entering this field must have in order to be successful?

They need people to get out of their way. Young women have the tools to be successful. There are barriers put up, invisible and visible, to allow them [young women] to activate those tools.

This video interview was produced by the UC Berkeley Safe Transportation Research and Education Center with funding provided by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of SafeTREC.

Headshot of Tracy McMillan

Tracy McMillan

Public Health Transportation Planner & Senior Associate

Nelson Nygaard

What makes a street complete?