For Release Saturday, December 5, 2008
Two years ago, Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) President John Norquist approached the lectern to address the Texas Transportation Commission upon the invitation of the late Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, an avowed road warrier. Knowing that the transportation commission, the overseers of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), had just embarked on one of the largest road building efforts in recent American history, Norquist said, “Mr. Chairman, I’m not against your big road running between your cities–but I am here to talk about how TxDOT can begin to support local communities, neighborhoods and economic development.”
Williamson and his colleagues were intrigued, but several of them continued to peek at their Blackberrys.
Norquist then started his famous “Highways to Boulevards” powerpoint presentation. When he showed the transformation of a portion of downtown Seoul, South Korea from a scarred aging corridor with an elevated highway into a modern walkable economic development marvel–a reinvented boulevard lined with new buildings and a linear park running down its middle–the commissioners stopped and stared. Norquist had touched a nerve. America has been building roads without any regard to what surrounds them, and it has to look at examples across the Pacific to understand how we have been losing ground here at home.
At that moment, the commissioners realized that this was a real opportunity to do something different.
Having introduced Norquist that day, I started toward the lectern to close the presentation. Chairman Williamson first thanked Norquist and Mike Krusee for arranging Norquist’s visit. A national leader in urban transportation reform, Krusee at that time was serving as chairman of the Transportation Committee of the Texas House of Representatives but could not be at the presentation because the legislature was in session that day. As chairman of the House committee, Krusee provided oversight of TxDOT and had been telling Chairman Williamson for some time that Norquist had an important message to deliver to Texas, eventually securing the invitation for Norquist to speak.
That day Williamson had obviously listened, asking me “what would you and Chairman Krusee like to do now?” I responded that TxDOT should take a serious look at its roadway design policies. With that, the commission created the TxDOT Urban Thoroughfares Committee.
After a year of work, the committee recommended–and TxDOT agreed–to adopt as an accepted roadway design criteria for the state, the Manual for Walkable Urban Thoroughfares. That manual recently had been adopted as a recommended practice by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). Developed in partnership with CNU and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the ITE Manual provides design criteria for streets that not only move cars safely but that also support walkable urbanism. The first state in the Union to adopt the ITE Manual, Texas now provides for true context sensitive solutions in urban conditions on its federal aid and state funded roadways.
Other states have undertaken similar reforms. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has undertaken a reform initiative under the leadership of its progressive transportation secretary, Allen Biehler. By adopting the Smart Transportation Guidebook, PennDOT has provided the state with the means to connect its investment in transportation infrastructure with sustainable communities through context-sensitive street design.
In Virginia, the state will no longer fund and maintain roadways that provide for only one way in and one way out of subdivisions. Why? The lack of a network of streets leads to unsustainable gridlock, resulting in more transportation funding pressure on the state to simply widen roads. More importantly, the “one-way in and one-way out” design does not support sustainable, interconnected walkable neighborhoods.
The common thread running through the Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia initiatives is support for sustainable development patterns, rather than just mitigating traffic congestion. For 60 years our system of designing and funding roads has been based on the latter. We must now shift the system’s purpose to the former.
The starting point is state DOT roadway design policy. In this context, it is time to engage the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to consider the ITE Manual as an analog to its Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, known as the “AASHTO Green Book.” The flexibility in design called for in the AASHTO green book clearly embraces the intent of the ITE Manual.
In addition, the federal authorization of Metropolitan Planning Organizations must begin to shift the focus of federal transportation spending from the mitigation of traffic congestion to connecting and sustaining walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. As the Obama Administration has recognized through its Livability Partnership of USDOT, HUD and EPA, transportation spending (as well as housing expenditures) must become primarily an investment in neighborhoods. The key will be ensuring that the design and funding of our streets support those places, instead of just making it easy to drive through them.
Scott Polikov is president of the Gateway Planning Group and serves on the national board of directors of the Congress for the New Urbanism. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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