Petition could powerfully promote ‘complete streets’
US Department of Transportation (DOT) officials would consider a change in the way they classify thoroughfares — to the benefit of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users — but they need political support.
Complete streets are among the most pressing needs for both urban and suburban revitalization — yet efforts to change roads to accommodate all users are stymied daily by road standards determined by the US functional classification system.
Now a petition is circulating that could initiate the first change in this system in five or six decades. The designations arterial, collector, and local would not change —they are too deeply imbedded in the system. Yet these designations are further divided into rural or urban locations. The petition seeks to add a third location category — suburban.
What does that matter? The change would make smart growth projects easier. It could help boost walking and bicycling, complete streets, and active living.
Note: This article is in the June 2013 of Better! Cities & Towns. Subscribe and get all of the reports packaged in a convenient, tactile format delivered to a special box on your doorstep. Some of our reports are for paid subscribers only.
The petition was launched at The Congress for the New Urbanism in Salt Lake City, on May 30. A week earlier, May 23, new urbanists Rick Hall of Hall Planning & Engineering, Victor Dover of Dover, Kohl & Partners, and John Massengale of Massengale & Co LLC met with high-level US DOT officials including Beth Osborne, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy. The response was positive. DOT now wants to promote livability, complete streets, and multimodal transportation, Osborne told the group. But the DOT needs a petition to show plenty of support and overcome inertia at DOT where the classification system has been in place for so long and has created, and continues to create, unwalkable streets.
Dover explains that the petition seeks to change a “flawed technicality.” Hall says that more specific standards are needed. Currently, if a thoroughfare is in an “urbanized area,” and is designated “arterial,” one standard applies. Since metro areas are largely suburban, that standard is geared to creating suburban, auto-oriented environments. “Suburban is the default for anything that is urbanized and not rural,” says Hall.
For years, new urbanists have been pushing for more flexibility in the standards with limited success. “I had a realization,” Hall says, “that we need greater specificity rather than flexibility. Flexibility just scares the transportation engineers. People will die, is their worry, if they relax the standards.”
In reality, the higher-speed streets are the deadly ones. Yet the transportation engineers have to stick their necks out every time a “substandard” — read “walkable” —thoroughfare is approved, Hall explains. The engineers become gatekeepers, blocking 60 to 70 percent of plans to create complete streets, Hall estimates.
“When you change to three categories, you become much more specific as to when the different standards can be introduced,” Hall says.
If a place has 100 intersections per square mile, which is the minimum for a walkable neighborhood, plus meets other criteria like mixed-use, the thoroughfare would be designated as “urban,” and urban standards would kick in. The starting point for design would be Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares, a peer-reviewed recommended practice written by the Institute for Transportation Engineers and CNU.
Existing urban thoroughfares, such as Main Streets and arterials that go through cities, would be easier to retrofit and maintain as complete streets.
Moreover, suburban arterials and collectors could be designated as “future” walkable thoroughfares where official plans support such a transformation. These suburban streets could get funding over time to convert to complete streets under the proposed functional classification system. How important is this? No suburban retrofit will work without complete streets.
The psychology changes, Hall notes. The transportation engineer or planner working for the Metropolitan Planning Agency that was a gatekeeper has, with the proposed system, responsibility to learn and administer truly urban standards where appropriate.
These standards tend to reduce speed, but not capacity. “Short of eliminating pedestrians from the side of the road, nothing will lower pedestrian fatalities like lowering speed limits in towns and cities,” Massengale says. “Lower speed limits also mean the urban designer can eliminate from the street the highway-scale signs, bold striping and colored reflectors that work against making places where pedestrians feel comfortable.”
Dover says the change would not be a panacea, but would greatly help smart growth efforts.
This little change, of a “flawed technicality,” could have profound affect on livability and complete streets. Advocates of smart growth, multimodal transportation, and complete streets must sign this petition ASAP. Here's the petition link.
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