Promoting New Urbanism through roadway design
It may seem counterintuitive to focus on roadway design when talking about creating New Urbanist communities. After all, one of the primary goals of New Urbanism is to de-emphasize the role of vehicles in downtown areas. But planners and designers who have worked with New Urbanism understand that effective roadway design is crucial.
In fact, roadway projects can be a significant catalyst of New Urbanism. Our roads and highways have grown as a federal priority in recent years, with the federal transportation budget growing to $105 billion. Much of the budget is provided to states and municipalities for transportation infrastructure development and can be put to use to create a transportation base out of which New Urbanism can grow.
Note: This article is in the April-May 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.
Planners must first recognize that roads aren’t just necessary evils: roads can actually serve as the foundation of New Urbanist planning. Through the implementation of Complete Streets and related approaches, roadway designers can create an accessible and safe environment where motor vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists share roadways equitably. This philosophy can be a seed from which New Urbanism can grow, creating walkable communities that are less congested and more livable.
More accessible and safer atreets
In recent years, Complete Streets has become one of the hottest trends in road and highway design because of its emphasis on equally promoting all modes of travel. The idea has gained significant traction with State Departments of Transportation and municipal Departments of Public Works. Although incorporating this concept has sometimes taken a push from state legislatures, designers should no longer assume that roads are for vehicles, and any extra use, whether for pedestrians or bicycles, is secondary.
Complete Streets turns traditional roadway design on its head. In the past, extra roadway and right of way space was a valued commodity and thought to make highways safer. This thinking was based on the idea that the more room a driver had to recover from his mistakes in operating his vehicle, the safer the roadway. While this may be the case on expressways, in urban conditions, excess pavement and open roadsides are felt to contribute to higher speeds and motorist inattentiveness.
While every community is unique, American roads tend to be inefficiently designed. They generally provide more space than is necessary to accommodate vehicle traffic, with excess pavement that isn’t properly utilized. As a result, this excess pavement becomes a burden that must be maintained, while typically going unused. For instance, it isn’t unusual for vehicular traffic lanes to be up to 15 feet wide, which is much more space than is typically needed for safe driving. Through Complete Streets, this excess width can be reduced, creating space for the development of sidewalks or bike lanes.
Similarly, the main streets of many community downtowns are four lane roadways with two lanes provided in each direction. Due to uncertainties regarding the presence of left turning vehicles, the inside travel lanes in this kind of roadway arrangement are typically underutilized, resulting in more driving space than is needed. This excess driving area tends to encourage unsafe motorist behaviors such as speeding and unsafe lane changes, both of which make these roads less attractive to pedestrians and bicyclists. One Complete Streets strategy that can be very successful in this type of downtown area is the introduction of the “lane diet”. Under this strategy, the four through lanes are replaced by a three lane cross section consisting of one through lane in each direction of travel and a middle two-way left turn lane. This approach slows down traffic, reduces side-swipe crash potential, and provides a much safer environment for turning traffic while freeing up some of the former roadway space for the creation of sidewalks, on–street parking, and bike lanes.
Lane diets slow down traffic, reduce side-swipe crash potential, and provide a safer environment for turning traffic while freeing up some of the former roadway space for the creation of sidewalks, on–street parking, and bike lanes. Photo courtesy of Wade Walker
Complete Streets can also promote New Urbanism by improving streetscapes and the overall downtown experience. Reducing the width of roadways permits planners to reclaim underutilized space for the addition of landscaping and sitting areas or wider sidewalks that can accommodate outdoor seating for restaurants. Some communities choose to use the space to create larger and safer bus stops or similar areas that encourage people to congregate.
One effective strategy for slowing—or calming—traffic in congested areas is the addition of raised crosswalks. By raising crosswalks, planners can provide a clearer and more recognizable delineation between crosswalks and the rest of the road, while at the same time compelling drivers to moderate their speed. Similarly, speed tables, which are essentially wider versions of the raised crosswalk, are often used to influence moderate driving speeds.
Another safety strategy that can be extremely effective in more congested communities is the addition of median islands in the middle of busy roads. Depending on size, such islands can provide a refuge for pedestrians who are crossing the street. They can also impart a narrowing effect on the motorist, which can reduce vehicular travel speed and serve as the ideal location for signage since their placement in the middle of the roadway falls more readily within drivers’ natural sightlines.
Median islands placed in the middle of busy roadways help reduce vehicle speed and provide a refuge for pedestrians who are crossing the street. Photo courtesy of Wade Walker
In fact, effective signage is a major challenge for designers. Road and crosswalk signs are typically placed on the right side of roadways, either adjacent to or upon curbs. The problem is that, because drivers steer from the left side of their vehicles in the United States, it is easy for them to miss signs that are located to the far right of their field of view. This is a particularly acute condition on busy roads because drivers are more likely to be focused on oncoming traffic approaching on their left and the fact that sign visibility can be further obscured by the presence of on-street parking.
A barrier to using roadway design approaches like Complete Streets to promote New Urbanism is the traditional culture of municipal planning, public works, and transportation departments. Too often, planners and administrators see roadway design as a byproduct of downtown planning, rather than a tactic for promoting planning goals.
For instance, urban and town planners often view transportation planning in the context of how transportation supports the local development plan. As such, they may content themselves with merely maintaining roads and repairing them when necessary. All too often, they miss the important role that roadways can play in promoting the planning goals they wish to pursue.
Likewise, public works and DOT administrators don’t always consider the role transportation plays in overall urban planning. Sufficient oversight is required to ensure that the DOT engineer is not just designing around a standardized template. Standards must allow the designer enough flexibility to integrate the existing or planned land use with the roadway. Additionally, a Complete Streets approach can be overlooked when a roadway project’s purpose and need don’t specifically call out Complete Streets elements. For example, does your transportation agency have a Complete Streets mentality when it designs a bridge deck replacement? Does it evaluate the proposed temporary detours needed to construct the deck for bicycle compatibility? Are the designers leaving no stone unturned when it comes to expanding the deck to include a sidewalk?
Instead, Complete Streets and New Urbanism must run throughout the very DNA of a city or town’s planning, public works, and transportation departments. Whenever there is as new project, planners and engineers should ask themselves, “How does this adhere to Complete Streets? Whenever a maintenance project such as pavement striping is undertaken, DPW administrators should begin by asking, “How can this project enhance Complete Streets? Ultimately, for transportation planning to truly impact New Urbanism, there needs to be a top-to-bottom culture through which all planners, engineers, and public works personnel see themselves as promoters of Complete Streets.
An Essential Element
Roadway Design is an essential element of successful New Urbanist development. After all, reducing the impact of vehicles on downtown areas isn’t likely to happen by accident. If communities want to truly create more walkable, livable communities, they need to have a strategic transportation vision that actively balances the needs of drivers with the interests of pedestrians and bicyclists.
Jack Carey is an associate with Fuss & O’Neill. He can be reached at JCarey@fando.com.