Taking Back Main Street

Roads Less Taken

Cover story

January ’98 issue of Engineering News Record


Across the U.S., highway designers and engineers aren’t just going “by the Green Book” anymore


West Palm Beach, Fla., has a $1.5-million urban road reconstruction project in the works. South Orange, N.J., is spending almost $4 million on its major downtown artery. But don’t assume reconstruction means widening. In these cases, as in many others across the country, it’s just the opposite.

The same populace that wanted a massive Interstate highway system and still seeks federal funds for big new road and rail projects is rethinking the idea that bigger is better. There is a growing attitude among cities and towns across the country that roads should fit into the community, not the other way around. More municipalities are expecting transportation engineers and bureaucrats to work with their specific needs for livable communities where pedestrians–not automobiles–are the priority.

“The basic philosophy being looked at now is to generate more flexibility in highway design,” says Loren Evans, a retired engineer who chairs the American Society of Civil Engineers’ committee on local roads and streets. “There may be a bit of a design rebellion of a sort,” he says, although the ideas are “not shared by everyone.”

The rebellion has some vocal proponents, including architecture and planning critic Jane Holtz Kay in her book Asphalt Nation, published last year. Kay takes direct aim at A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, the industry bible of highway design issued by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. It has “guided the slash and burn school of road straighteners for decades,” she writes.

AASHTO’s so-called “Green Book” describes recommended road widths, alignments and other features for optimal traffic safety. Few would dispute the idea that safety should be the first consideration inroad design. Even aashto officials such as Design Committee Chairman Thomas Warne, Utah’s transportation director, concede that it has been easy to take the principles for granted. “We haven’t been as flexible as we could be,” he says.

Recently, some states have begun to adopt new road design standards of their own, following the lead of Vermont, which did so last fall. Officials can use their own discretion in determining road and bridge length and width, and in setting speed limits–independent of Green Book recommendations.

Jeffrey Squires, deputy secretary of Vermont’s Agency Of Transportation, says other states have expressed “a great amount of interest in what we’ve done.” He emphasizes that the in-house rules are not changing Green Book standards. “We’ve tried to stress that solutions to highway problems are going to be unique and challenging and need to be approached in a creative way,” says Squires.”We’ve tried to

reconfigure the standards so that they give designers and engineers a great deal more freedom to come up with the most appropriate solution for the situation.”

Targeted areas are mostly arterial and collector roads where “we’ve reduced shoulder widths, lane widths and made some modifications to horizontal curb requirements,” says Squires. “We included a section that talks about context–a narrative section that encourages a designer to look at the project setting and come up with a design that fits within that setting.”


The point of it all is to preserve and enhance the quality of life and commercial vitality of U.S. towns

and cities, say proponents. A crucial factor is making more room for pedestrians and less for vehicles.

In South Orange, an old-line village of about 16,000 people in northern New Jersey, its main artery, South Orange Avenue, grew from a dirt road into a four-lane thoroughfare where too many cars whizzed past too few active storefronts. “There was a feeling that South Orange Avenue cut the village in half,” says Sal Renda, village engineer. To slow the flow, engineers expanded the sidewalks, created on-street parking spaces and carved center turning lanes that shrunk the roadway to one lane in each direction.

In West Palm Beach, five-lane Olive Avenue will become a two-lane road running through a residential

neighborhood.”Civic associations…came up with plans of their own and sold it to the city,”says Raymond Pippitt, Florida Dept. of Transportation project manager. They asked for landscaped traffic islands at each end of the road, “saying to the motorist, ‘You’re entering a neighborhood now,'” he says.

The idea of fitting a road–or bridge–into the aesthetics of the surrounding community has given rise to new opportunities in the private sector. Landscape architecture and road design often go hand-in-hand. Robert White is a Norwich, Vt.-based architect with highway access management training. His projects, which include scenic corridors, downtown street plans and strip development, have won federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act funding.

The RBA Group, a Morristown, N.J-based engineer, has built a practice in “traffic calming.” Traffic circles, narrower streets, curb extensions and textured crosswalks are all typical elements in this kind of street design.

Bettina Zimny, an RBA Group designer, says that municipal interest in traffic calming approaches has increased significantly in the past two years. “It’s a combination of streetscape elements and traffic engineers getting together and creating pleasant travel environments,” she says. No longer are streets built as “a wide expanse of asphalt that makes you feel like driving faster.”

Roundabouts, traffic circles and other traffic calming design methods are being used in places such as Eugene, Ore., where city planners are in the midst of a comprehensive review of street standards. City Engineer Les Lyle says they are considering how best to meld the needs of pedestrian bicyclists and mass transit with arterial roads. Eugene already allows streets to be as narrow as 20 ft, where once they had to be 28 ft as per Green Book standards.


The Federal Highway Administration is soon to release a new document entitled Flexibility in Highway

Design that references “new urbanism” designs and specifically encourages consideration of historical,

community and aesthetic factors. “What it says is that designers have lots of tools to build flexibility into the process,” says James Byrnes, Connecticut Dept. of Transportation’s chief highway engineer and chairman of an aashto task force evaluating the new document.

Connecticut’s state legislature recently passed initiatives that allow bridges not part of the state highway system to be less than 28 ft wide and require consideration of community values and aesthetics in design. As for roads, “we’re not about building big wide roads any more,” adds Byrnes.”In this area of the country, clearly, the era of building new roads is over….There’s a sense of getting in values other than the standard of safety, although that’s still paramount.”

Connecticut’s municipalities are among those pioneering changes in how infrastructure coexists with rustic landscapes. The state movement has vocal spokes people, such as Alan Chapin, first selectman in the Town of Washington. “We’re lobbying for a set of rural standards from the state dot that would pertain to both bridge and road reconstruction,” he says. “Currently, small towns throughout the country are not eligible for lots of istea funding.”

Chapin hopes that as much as 5% of istea funds could be allocated to rural reconstruction. “I’m somewhat amazed that local road issues in this country have been ignored for the most part,” he says. “A lot of it is just plain common sense.”

Attention to low-volume and rural roads has recently gotten a bigger platform in asce. Documents obtained from a recent subcommittee meeting on the issue describe how designers must consider questions such as whether shoulders, guardrails and clear zones are needed on a road with a speed limit of 10 to 35 mph. The 10-ft clear zone called for in the Green Book might not be practical on a low-volume road, adding unnecessary construction cost, according to the documents.


Departing from Green Book standards might sound like a big liability risk, but Warne contends that neither the departure nor the risk are so drastic. “The Green Book allows virtually all the flexibility being asked for,” he says. “Communities are asking for the ability to take standards and adapt them. That exists within the framework.” If a design does deviate from Green Book standards, it’s up to engineers to document and rationally analyze the change as a safeguard against liability, he says.

“It’s a huge misconception that small towns aren’t willing to share liability,” says Chapin. “We’re asking [designers] to fix the road, but not by making it wider and straighter.” What needs to chance on the state and federal levels, according to Chapin, is “the concept of building roads bigger and wider so that years from now, if there’s a subdivision, we’ll be ready for it.”

Warne calls this a two-edged sword, citing examples of Utah towns that rejected bypass routes because they wanted the business the traffic would bring, but then changed gears as the congestion built up. “It’s an evolution of wanting certain things when you’re a certain size,” he says. “These are decisions you have to live with.” The key is cooperation between public and private sectors. “A road is not just a dot project,” says Carl Bard, Conndot principal engineer. “It’s everyone’s project.”

By Aileen Cho, with David Kohn, Debra Rubin and Steven Daniels, 1998 Engineering News Record


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