Designing Streets: Weighing Community and Mobility

By Pam Neary, Groundwork; (Summer 1998)


For over 60 years, America’s streets have been built at a scale that precludes pedestrian uses, undermines social interactions and denigrates the historic, cultural and aesthetic character of our communities. Streets are primarily designed to meet the needs of a mobile society and its businesses, encouraging the ever more rapid transport of people and products. But more and more neighborhoods have learned what works for transport doesn’t necessarily work for community.

Today’s oversized street standards became embedded in asphalt during the 1930s when the federal government took action to mitigate the economic effects of the Depression. In 1933, President Roosevelt established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to restructure the private home financing system with government mortgage insurance plans. By 1934 more than 70 percent of the nation’s commercial banks had federal mortgage insurance. In response to the popularity of the insurance, the FHA chose to protect their investments against risk by standardizing the type of housing subdivisions they would insure. To that end, they devised detailed technical regulations’ including road standards, for housing subdivisions. All federally insured projects were strongly encouraged to adopt these standards.

The FHA road standards were developed by the American Association of Highway Officials who, along with the federal government, asked the national Institute of Transportation Engineers to suggest traffic engineering guidelines and standards for safe, high-speed streets. First published in 1942, they recommended a 50-foot-wide right-of-way with 24 feet of pavement. Pavement width was widened to 26 feet of blacktop just a few years later. These standards became the guiding principles of road and highway design and were incorporated into FHA subdivision rules. By 1965, recommended road widths had increased to 32-34 feet of pavement and 60-foot rights-of-way. Over time, local governments have mechanically adopted these standards, primarily out of fear of liability.

Communities built to FHA specifications and designed to facilitate the been magnificently successful at discouraging the use of streets as public gathering spots. This has had measurable effects on the long-term viability of our communities. Those living next to highways or in neighborhoods amputated by high-traffic throughways know what happens when the outside environment is inhospitable: they endure declining home values and increasing noise, air pollution and neighborhood crime. In some communities, city officials have gone so far as to prohibit sidewalks. They have given the ravenous needs of commuters priority over those of their own residents who cannot or prefer not to drive.

Wider streets encourage higher speeds—but what about safety? Last year the City of Longmont, Colorado, partnered with Swift and Associates to examine this question. The study did indeed find a high correlation between road width and safety, but not in the direction the researchers expected. Narrow roads, they concluded, are safer than wide ones. As street width widens, accidents per mile increase exponentially. The safest streets were 24 feet wide and had an accident injury rate per mile about one-fourth the injury rate of the more common 36-foot-wide streets.

Armed with this type of into information and in response to ever louder complaints by residents, some communities are beginning to rebel. In “Governing” (October 1997), Alan Ehrenhalt pointed to a truckload of communities that have rejected the traffic engineers’ conventional wisdom. In the spring of 1997, Phoenix, Arizona, passed an ordinance to allow developers to use narrower streets in new developments, reducing road width minimums from 32 feet to 28 feet. Eugene, Oregon, went one better and reduced its standards for some roads to only 20 feet.

Other towns are reducing the size of already-existing roads. Instead of widening heavily traveled route through the center of town, Wellsley, Massachusetts, decided to widen the sidewalks and narrow the street. The University of Toronto worked with city planners to narrow a four-lane arterial into wider walkways with only two lanes for vehicles. Six lanes of U.S. Interstate 1 are being trimmed to two separate two-lane roads in West Palm Beach, Florida. In California, Riverside and San Bernadino now have two-lane principal downtown streets down from four lanes—and both cities are switching from parallel to diagonal parking to narrow the streets even further.

Vermont has decided to develop design standards that are more in keeping with the state’s local culture and the character of its small towns and villages. Targeted for change are arterial and collector roads, with reduced lane widths and shoulder widths. This year, Vermont legislators added a new narrative section to the old engineering standards that inserts respect for the local setting as an important design criterion. Some communities have even gone to the extreme of rejecting state and federal aid in order to set their own community-friendly standards. About two years ago both Guilford, Connecticut and Chester, Vermont, turned down large amounts of federal bridge building money (almost $1 million in Guilford’s case) because they opposed the feds’ requirements for big concrete bridges. Both did the job their way—and cheaper—with local money.

Rules from the past have saddled many American communities with overdesigned road systems that undermine the quality of life, but in other areas of the world community-friendly street design show high levels of residential satisfaction and stronger community interaction. Surveys in the Netherlands found that mothers and children consider their system of shared-use streets to be safer than ordinary streets. When living in neighborhoods with multiple-use streets Israelis exhibit increased communications between neighbors, and in Germany friendlier street designs have induced a 20 percent increase in children’s play activity. Changing the rules of the road is a critical first step in reclaiming community as a priority.


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