Complete Streets, Complete Legal Learning: A Law Student’s First Experience with “Legal Epidemiology”

posted on Mon, Mar 27 2017 3:47 pm by Sophia Jafrul

While working for the Public Health Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey Law School, my partner Austin Roche and I conducted a study on Complete Streets policies. State Complete Streets laws direct transportation planners and engineers at state and local levels to routinely design and operate the entire right-of-way to enable safe access for all road users. To date, there has not been a systematic review of state statutes impacting Complete Streets that constitutes ‘policy surveillance’, or the “ongoing, systematic collection, analysis, interpretation and dissemination of information about a given body of public health law and policy.” Thus, the goal of our project was to create a comprehensive data set and inventory of existing Complete Streets and routine accommodation state laws.

The supervising researcher for our project was Ms. Jamila Porter, M.P.H. Ms. Porter is the Director of Programs and Evaluation at the Safe States Alliance, a national association of injury and violence prevention professionals. Project methodology involved: 1. identifying statutory text; 2. coding the statutes; 3. organizing the data for presentation and public use; and 4. discussing conclusions and study limitations.

The first step was to conduct a comprehensive survey of existing state Complete Streets statutes in the U.S. For the purposes of our project, in order to be categorized as a Complete Streets statute the law had to, at a minimum, mandate that pedestrians and bicyclists be accommodated when roads are constructed or reconstructed. We assisted Ms. Porter in conducting a 50-state survey and found that 18 states had adopted a Complete Streets statute. We searched LexisNexis Academic and Fastcase legal research databases to obtain full texts of current statutes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. To validate the search results, we made comparisons between the laws obtained through these databases and a publicly available list of known state Complete Streets statutes that was documented in a report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Seskin, and McCann. In cases where only a citation or act number was available in either database—but not the full text of the statute—we visited websites of individual state legislatures to obtain the full text of statutes.

The second step was to code the statutes to determine the similarities and differences between them. An initial list of variables was developed by the text of the statutes and formed into an Excel codebook that included each variable name, definition, data type, and value range. For example, one variable was “pedestrian users,” which seeks to ascertain whether the statute explicitly states that pedestrians be accommodated. Austin and I read the statutes for each state and independently coded the variables with a “1” if the variable existed in the statute or a “0” if it did not. Accordingly, each statute was coded twice, once by me and once by Austin. We coded each statute separately, blinded to each other’s results. This process allowed Jamila to calculate the inter-rater reliability of the data, a score of how much homogeneity or consensus there was in our ratings. After we determined the conflicts between our data, Austin and I created universal “decision rules” in plain language in order for third persons not involved in the study to be able to understand how laws were coded. This concluded the third step of organizing and representing our data on the Excel spreadsheet.

The fourth and final step—making legal and policy conclusions and studying limitations—will come with time. For now, the project created a comprehensive inventory of the Complete Streets statutes that do exist. Ms. Porter anticipates that these data can be used by practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to better understand the variations that exist across various state laws and potentially inform the development of future state Complete Streets statutes.

Overall, learning how to conduct policy surveillance and code laws proves to be a beneficial skill. The step-by-step process allows for meticulous and in-depth analysis of policies. Specifically, policymakers, students, and attorneys can use such data to compare and contrast the outcomes of implementing a specific variable in a policy. Ultimately, the process can allow for a more detailed research analysis over time and is designed to determine a variable’s effect on the policy’s goal.

This blog was prepared by Sophia Jafrul, J.D., Class of 2016, University of Maryland Carey School of Law, under the supervision of Kerri McGowan Lowrey, Deputy Director of the Network for Public Health Law -- Eastern Region Office.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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