The Economic Merits of Smart Growth



by Mark Muro and Robert Puentes

A Discussion Paper Prepared by The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy

March 2004


With the collapse of the 1990s stock market bubble and several years of national economic uncertainty, a tense new climate of austerity has sharpened debates over government spending, economic development, and the physical growth of states and metropolitan areas. Leaders in this environment are eager for fiscally prudent ways to simultaneously support their communities and stimulate their economies. This paper makes the case that more compact development patterns and investing in projects to improve urban cores could save taxpayers money and improve overall regional economic performance. To that end, it relies on a review of the best academic empirical literature to weigh the extent to which a new way of thinking about growth and development can benefit governments, businesses, and regions during these fiscally stressed times.

Overall, the review finds that:

* The cost of providing public infrastructure and delivering services can be reduced through thoughtful design and planning. Several studies suggest that rational use of more compact development patterns from 2000 to 2025 promise the following sorts of savings for governments nationwide: 11.8 percent, or $110 billion, from 25-year roadbuilding costs; 6 percent, or $12.6 billion, from 25-year water and sewer costs; and 3.7 percent, or $4 billion, for annual operations and service delivery. School-construction savings are somewhat less.

* Regional economic performance is enhanced when areas are developed with community benefits and the promotion of vital urban centers in mind. Studies show that productivity and overall economic performance may be improved to the extent compact, mixed-use development fosters dense labor markets, vibrant urban centers, efficient transportation systems, and a high “quality-of-place.” Productivity increases with county employment density. Communities that practice growth management realize improved personal income shares over time.

* Suburbs also benefit from investment in healthy urban cores. Finally, studies suggest that to the extent these smarter development patterns foster equity in regions by improving center-city incomes and vitality, they will also enhance the economic well-being of the suburbs as well as the city. City income growth has been shown to increase suburban income, house prices, and population. Reduced city poverty rates have also been associated with metropolitan income growth. In the end, this paper makes the case that during times of tight budgets, more efficient andbeneficial growth strategies make more sense than ever.

As these strategies become more widespread, the challenge for the research community will be to move beyond the obvious fiscal savings and continue to quantify the profound effects on economic competitiveness, equity, and quality of life available through better planning and community design. Ultimately, these issues lie at the crux of what better development is really all about.

Excerpt from the intro:

“Businesses-struggling to restore pre-slump profit levels-are aggressively seeking creative ways to accelerate growth and promote efficiency. For their part, states and local governments- squeezed by record budget shortfalls-are looking desperately to curb wasteful spending. Suddenly, public officials are being forced to consider not just short-term budget cuts but policy reforms that will lead to long-term efficiencies. And no wonder: The states alone faced an aggregate $100 billion in budget shortfalls this year and last, thanks to a “perfect storm” of woes that includes a slow economy that has slammed tax revenues, soaring Medicaid expenses, and huge new security costs associated with the threat of terrorism.1 Only Arkansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming say they will face no budget problems in 2004.

In this environment, it is inevitable that opportunities to rethink how communities grow, and how they invest public dollars, would get another look. And they are getting it. Notwithstanding their mostly rhetorical justifications for action, governors and advocates alike have begun to promote ideas such as the reuse of existing buildings, compact design to reduce infrastructure costs and traffic congestion, and limits on sprawl as a fiscal and economic tonic in hard times. “No longer should taxpayers be forced to bear the burden of new roads, schools, and sewers every time a McMansion is built or a mall is erected,” declared Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey last year, in the most direct gubernatorial embrace ever of smart growth as a fiscal remedy.

And a month later Maryland’s former Governor Parris Glendening, now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, connected the moment and the message in a conference speech. “The infrastructure costs savings associated with smart growth are more imperative as officials are forced to make tough funding decisions,” asserted Glendening, who first popularized a fiscally oriented concept of growth in gaining passage of Maryland’s 1997 Smart Growth Areas Act. “Sprawl is fiscally irresponsible,” Glendening told a reporter.”

Here are more quotes from the report:

“…sprawl…[is] not inevitable but result[s] at least in part from major governmental policies that distort the market and facilitate the excessive decentralization of people and jobs.”

“Nor are these potential efficiencies [for lower public service and infrastructure costs] trivial. Spending on capital and services makes up fully one-quarter of annual state and local outlays…even modest percentage savings from smart growth could save taxpayers billions.”

“…[an urban growth boundary] results in higher housing prices, not due to limits on the supply of housing, but rather from the creation of benefits such as heightened convenience, enhanced public transit, and lower service costs…they also may enhance a regions’ tax bases, create wealth through housing appreciation, and boost property tax collections.”

“…density is a fundamental purpose of cities…clusterings of talented people, or ‘human capital’, represent a prime driver of aggregate economic growth…In a more qualitative vein, the economic development expert Richard Florida (2000) argues that attributes like ’24-7′ urban scenes, subway or light rail systems, and sustainable development spur growth because they appeal to the affinity for such qualities among highly educated, highly mobile ‘knowledge workers’ who ‘vote with their feet’…such workers seek out smart growth attributes and that providing them can enhance a regions’ ability to attract talent and develop high technology industries.”

“…to a measurable degree suburban welfare depends on central-city welfare…To the extent smart growth places a high priority on reinvesting in older established neighborhoods and regional centers as opposed to facilitating decentralization, it will likely tend to improve the region’s economic performance and benefit city dwellers and suburbanites alike.”

“…per unit costs for police, fire, highway, schools, sewer, and solid waste services were consistently lowest in counties whose growth was more concentrated in established areas between 1987 and 1997, and highest in the counties with the most dispersed growth…[households in] Louisville [KT] see their taxes go up by $36.82 every time their sprawling county accommodates 1,000 new residents…[compact] Warren County [KT] can accommodate 1,000 new residents at a cost of $53.89 per household while in sprawling Pulaski County such growth costs each household $239.93.”

“…lot size (or density0 is the spatial attribute that has the most impact on water and sewer costs. [Speir and Stevenson] demonstrated that dispersed large lots at low densities result in significantly higher public service costs than smaller lots closer together…The consensus is clear: All things being equal, governments can save taxpayers more money by channeling development into established areas where services can be provided more cheaply.”

“…smart growth goals like compactness, density, and ‘quality of life’ enhancement seems to support — or at least be associated with — modestly strengthened economic performance. Presumably, this is because such urban qualities improve productivity by enhancing businesses’ access to quality workers…doubling employment density increases average productivity by around 6 percent…workers in the 10 densest states produced $38,782 of value annually while those in the 10 least dense states produced only $31,578 in output — about 25 percent less. Overall, Ciccone and Hall attributed [most of the difference] to differences in the density of economic activity, rather than other factors like the size of the cities or public investment levels there.”

“…[Nelson and Peterman (2000)] found…a positive association between growth management and improved economic performance.”

“…patenting activity [is] a key measure of idea generation and economic vitality…patenting was significantly greater during the decade [of 1990 to 2000] in regions with higher employment density…the number of patents per capita rose, on average, 20 to 30 percent in a metro for every doubling of density…denser places are enjoying significant innovation edges over less-dense competitors.”

“…shoring up older urban centers — as smart growth attempts to do — can build wealth for entire metropolitan areas, city and suburbs alike…targeted efforts to alleviate central city poverty eventually seem to ‘trickle up’ to improve incomes across the whole region…So if suburban interests ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ the answer seems increasingly clear: Boosting the core helps boost whole regions.”

“…A portfolio of provocative evidence suggests quite strongly that smart growth has the potential to reduce governments’ capital facility costs, reduce their costs of delivering services, and improve regional economic performance as well.”


Full report:

Click to access 200403_smartgrowth.pdf


Turning Small Change into Big Changes

By Douglas Kolozsvari & Donald Shoup

Access, NUMBER 23, FALL 2003

THE MONEY YOU PUT INTO a parking meter seems to vanish into thin air. No one knows where the money goes, and everyone would rather park free, so politicians find it easier to require ample off-street parking than to charge market prices at meters. But if each neighborhood could keep all the parking revenue it generates, a powerful new constituency would emerge-the neighborhoods that receive the revenue. Cities can change the politics of parking if they earmark parking revenue for public improvements in the metered neighborhoods. Consider an older business district where few stores have off-street parking, and vacant curb spaces are hard to find. Cruising for curb parking congests the streets, and everyone complains about a parking shortage. Parking meters would create a few curb vacancies, and these vacancies would attract customers willing to pay for parking if they don’t have to spend time hunting for it. Nevertheless, merchants fear that charging for parking would keep some customers away. Suppose in this case the city promises to use all the district’s meter revenue to pay for public amenities that can attract customers, such as cleaning the sidewalks, planting street trees, putting overhead utility wires underground, improving store facades, and ensuring security.

Using curb parking revenue to improve the metered area can therefore create a strong local interest in charging the right

price for curb parking.


The right price for curb parking is the lowest price that keeps a few spaces available to allow convenient access. If no curb spaces are available, reducing their price cannot attract more customers, just as reducing the price of anything else in short supply cannot increase its sales. A below-market price for curb parking simply leads to cruising and congestion. The goal of pricing is to produce a few vacant spaces so that drivers can find places to park near their destinations. Having a few parking spaces vacant is like having inventory in a store, and everyone understands that customers avoid stores that never have what they want in stock. The city should reduce the price of curb parking if there are too many vacancies (the inventory is excessive), and increase it if there are too few (the shelves are bare).

Underpricing curb parking cannot increase the number of cars parked at the curb because it cannot increase the number of spaces available. What underpricing can do, however, and what it does do, is create a parking shortage that keeps potential customers away. If it takes only five minutes to drive somewhere else, why spend fifteen cruising for parking? Short-term parkers are less sensitive to the price of parking than to the time it takes to find a vacant space. Therefore, charging enough to create a few curb vacancies can attract customers who would rather pay for parking than not be able to find it. And spending the meter revenue for public improvements can attract even more customers.

We can examine the effects of this charge-and-spend policy because Pasadena, California, charges market prices for curb parking and returns all of the meter revenue to the business districts that generate it. An evaluation of Pasadena’s program shows it can help revitalize older business districts by improving their parking, transportation, and public infrastructure.


Pasadena’s downtown declined between 1930 and 1980, but it has since been revived as “Old Pasadena,” one of Southern California’s most popular shopping and entertainment destinations. Dedicating parking meter revenue to finance public improvements in the area has played a major part in this revival.

Old Pasadena was the original commercial core of the city, and in the early 20th century it was an elegant shopping district. In 1929,

Pasadena widened its main thoroughfare, Colorado Boulevard, by 28 feet, and this required moving the building facades on each side of the street back 14 feet. Owners removed the front 14 feet of their buildings, and most constructed new facades in the popular Spanish Colonial Revival or Art Deco styles. However, a few owners put back the original facades (an early example of historic preservation). The result is a handsome circa-1929 streetscape that is now the center of Old Pasadena.

The area sank into decline during the Depression. After the war the narrow storefronts and lack of parking led many merchants to seek larger retail spaces in more modern surroundings. Old Pasadena became the city’s Skid Row, and by the 1970s much of it was slated for redevelopment. Pasadena’s Redevelopment Agency demolished three historic blocks on Colorado Boulevard to make way for Plaza Pasadena, an enclosed mall with ample free parking whose construction the city assisted with $41 million in public subsidies. New buildings clad in then-fashionable black glass replaced other historic properties. The resulting “Corporate Pasadena” horrified many citizens, so the city reconsidered its plans for the area. The Plan for Old Pasadena, published in 1978, asserted “if the area can be revitalized, building on its special character, it will be unique to the region.” In 1983, Old Pasadena was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. However, despite these planning efforts, commercial revival was slow to come, in part because lack of public investment and the parking shortage were intractable obstacles.


Pasadena devised a creative parking policy that has contributed greatly to Old Pasadena’s revival: it uses Old Pasadena’s parking meter revenue ($1.2 million in 2001) to finance additional public spending in the area.

Old Pasadena had no parking meters until 1993, and curb parking was restricted only by a two-hour time limit. Customers had difficulty finding places to park because employees took up the most convenient curb spaces, and moved their cars every two hours to avoid citations. The city’s staff proposed installing meters to regulate curb parking, but the merchants and property owners opposed the idea. They feared that paid parking would discourage people from coming to the area at all. Customers and tenants, they assumed, would simply go to shopping centers like Plaza Pasadena that offered free parking. Meter proponents countered that employees rather than customers occupied many curb spaces, and making these spaces available for short-term parking would attract more customers. Any customers who left because they couldn’t park free would also make room for others who were willing to pay if they could find a space, and who would probably spend more money in Old Pasadena if they could find a space.

Debates about the meters dragged on for two years before the city reached a compromise with the merchants and property owners. To defuse opposition, the city offered to spend all the meter revenue on public investments in Old Pasadena. The merchants and property owners quickly agreed to the proposal because they would directly benefit from it. The city also liked it because it wanted to improve Old Pasadena, and the meter revenue would pay for the project.

The desire for public improvements that would attract customers to Old Pasadena soon outweighed fear that paid parking would drive customers away. Businesses and property owners began to see the parking meters in a new light-as a source of revenue.

They agreed to an unusually high rate of $1 an hour for curb parking, and to the unusual policy of operating the meters on Sundays and in the evenings when the area is still busy with visitors. The city also didn’t lose anything in the process. Because there had been no parking meters anywhere in the city before, returning the revenue to Old Pasadena didn’t create a loss to the city’s general fund. Indeed, the city gained revenue from overtime fines. Both business and government thus had a stake in the meter money, and so the project went ahead.

Only the blocks with parking meters receive the added services financed by the meter revenue. The city worked with Old Pasadena’s Business Improvement District (BID) to establish the boundaries of the Old Pasadena Parking Meter Zone (PMZ). The city also established the Old Pasadena PMZ Advisory Board, consisting of business and property owners who recommend parking policies and set spending priorities for the zone’s meter revenues. Connecting the meter revenue directly to added public services and keeping it under local control are largely responsible for the parking program’s success. “The only reason meters went into Old Pasadena in the first place,” said Marilyn Buchanan, chair of the Old Pasadena PMZ, “was because the city agreed all the money would stay in Old Pasadena.”

The city installed the parking meters in 1993, and then borrowed $5 million to finance the “Old Pasadena Streetscape and Alleyways Project,” with the meter revenue dedicated to repaying the debt. The bond proceeds paid for street furniture, trees, tree grates, and historic lighting fixtures throughout the area. Dilapidated alleys became safe, functional pedestrian spaces with access to shops and restaurants. To reassure businesses and property owners that the meter revenues stayed in Old Pasadena, the city mounted a marketing campaign to tell shoppers what their meter money was funding.

As the area attracted more pedestrian traffic, the sidewalks needed more maintenance. This would have posed a problem when Old Pasadena relied on the city for cleaning and maintenance, but now the BID has meter money to pay for the added services. The BID has arranged for daily sweeping of the streets and sidewalks, trash collection, removal of decals from street fixtures, and steam cleaning of Colorado Boulevard’s sidewalks twice a month. Dedicating the parking meter revenue to Old Pasadena has thus created a “virtuous cycle” of continuing improvements. The meter revenue pays for public improvements, the public improvements attract more visitors who pay for curb parking, and more meter revenue is then available to pay for more public improvements.

Old Pasadena’s 690 parking meters yielded $1.2 million net parking revenue (after all collection costs) to fund additional public services in FY 2001. The revenue thus amounts to $1,712 per meter per year. The first claim on this revenue is the annual debt service of $448,000 that goes to repay the $5 million borrowed to improve the sidewalks and alleys. Of the remaining revenue, $694,000 was spent to increase public services in Old Pasadena, above the level provided in other commercial areas. The city provides some of these services directly; for example, the Police Department provides additional foot patrols, and two horseback officers on weekend evenings, at a cost of $248,000. The parking enforcement officers who monitor the meters until well into the night further increase security, at no additional charge. The city also allocated $426,000 of meter revenue for added sidewalk and street maintenance and for marketing (maps, brochures, and advertisements in local newspapers). Drivers who park in Old Pasadena finance all these public services, at no cost to the businesses, property owners, or taxpayers.

Old Pasadena has done well in comparison with the rest of Pasadena. Its sales tax revenue increased rapidly after parking meters were installed in 1993, and is now higher than in the other retail districts in the city. Old Pasadena’s sales tax revenues quickly exceeded those of Plaza Pasadena, the nearby shopping mall that had free parking. With great fanfare, Plaza Pasadena was demolished in 2001 to make way for a new development-with storefronts that resemble the ones in Old Pasadena.

Would Old Pasadena be better off today with dirty sidewalks, dilapidated alleys, no street trees or historic street lights, and less security, but with free curb parking? Clearly, no. Old Pasadena is now a place where everyone wants to be, rather than merely another place where everyone can park free.


To see how parking policies affect urban outcomes, we can compare Old Pasadena with Westwood Village, a business district in Los Angeles that was once as popular as Old Pasadena is now. In 1980, anyone who predicted that Old Pasadena would soon become hip and Westwood would fade would have been judged insane. However, since then the Village has declined as Old Pasadena thrived. Why?

Except for their parking policies, Westwood Village and Old Pasadena are similar. Both are about the same size, both are historic areas, both have design review boards, and both have BIDS. Westwood Village also has a few advantages that Old Pasadena lacks. It is surrounded by extremely high-income neighborhoods (Bel Air, Holmby Hills, and Westwood) and is located between UCLA and the high-rise corridor of Wilshire Boulevard, which are both sources of many potential customers. Old Pasadena, by contrast, is surrounded by moderate-income housing and low-rise office buildings. Tellingly, although Westwood Village has about the same number of parking spaces as Old Pasadena, merchants typically blame a parking shortage for the Village’s decline. In Old Pasadena, parking is no longer a big issue. A study in 2001 found that the average curb-space occupancy rate in Old Pasadena was 83 percent, which is about the ideal rate to assure available space for shoppers. The meter revenue has financed substantial public investment in sidewalk and alley improvements that attract visitors to the stores, restaurants, and movie theaters. Because all the meter revenue stays in Old Pasadena, the merchants and property owners understand that paid parking helps business.

In contrast, Westwood’s curb parking is underpriced and overcrowded. A 1994 parking study found that the curb-space occupancy rate was 96 percent during peak hours, making it necessary for visitors to search for vacant spaces. The city nevertheless reduced meter rates from $1 to 50ยข an hour in 1994, in response to merchants’ and property owners’ argument that cheaper curb parking would stimulate business. Off-street parking in any of the nineteen private lots or garages in Westwood costs at least $2 for the first hour, so drivers have an incentive to hunt for cheaper curb parking. The result is a shortage of curb spaces, and underuse of the off-street ones. The 1994 study found that only 68 percent of the Village’s 3,900 off-street parking spaces were occupied at the peak daytime hour (2 p.m.). Nevertheless, the shortage of curb spaces (which are only 14 percent of the total parking supply) creates the illusion of an overall parking shortage. In contrast to Old Pasadena, Westwood’s sidewalks and alleys are crumbling because there is no source of revenue for repairing them-the meter revenue disappears into the city’s general fund.

The Old Pasadena/Westwood Village comparison suggests that parking policies can help some areas rebound, and leave other areas trapped in a slump. If Westwood Village had always charged market prices for curb parking and had spent the revenue on public services, it probably would have retained its original luster rather than fallen into a long economic decline. If Old Pasadena had kept curb parking free and not spent $1.2 million a year on public services, it probably would still be struggling. The exactly opposite parking policies in Westwood Village and Old Pasadena have surely helped determine their different fates. As the signs on Old Pasadena’s parking meters say, “Your meter money makes a difference.”


Charging market prices for curb parking and returning the meter revenue for public improvements have helped pave the way for Old Pasadena’s renaissance. The meter revenue has paid to improve the streetscape and to convert alleys into pleasant walkways with shops and restaurants. The additional public spending makes the area safer, cleaner, and more attractive for both customers and businesses. These public improvements have increased private investment, property values, and sales tax revenues. Old Pasadena has pulled itself up by its parking meters.

Douglas Kolozsvari received the MA in urban planning from UCLA in 2002 and is now associate planner at the San Mateo County Transit District (, and Donald Shoup is professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles (

Economic Merits of Road Diets and Traffic Calming

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

In a great many cases, “improved safety” is a reason cited as a rationale for adding travel lanes to a road (“widening” a road). Indeed, because “improved safety” is a “moral high ground” argument (i.e., the argument should be accepted for ethical reasons), the safety rationale is perhaps the most common reason given for why a road “must” be widened.

In effect, public policy makers, when confronted with the “public safety” justification, are forced into an uncomfortable position when a decision must be made to widen or not widen a road: Either agree to the widening, or take a position that seems to suggest an uncaring attitude toward public safety.

It comes as no surprise that a large number of decision-makers are persuaded solely on the basis of the public safety argument.

Because road widenings are enormously expensive, speed up car traffic, and can profoundly worsen quality of life as well as accelerate strip commercial development and urban sprawl, we must be certain that road widenings do, in fact, deliver on the promise of dramatically improved safety.

The Forgiving Road

The “Forgiving Road” is a road that “forgives” a motorist when a driving mistake is made. That is, being reckless, or driving at high-speeds, or driving inattentively is not followed by the “punishment” of consequences such as crashing into something on the side of the road. For several decades, we have designed forgiving roads. We have been pulling buildings, parked cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, trees and other “obstructions” away from the sides of roads so that even an unskilled motorist can travel at high speeds without crashing into something.

The forgiving road was thought to be a way to promote “safety”(the hidden agenda, for many, was to promote high-speed travel by large volumes of car traffic).

Of course-human nature being what it is-such a design encourages reckless, high-speed, inattentive driving because human psychology compels us to tend to drive at the highest speed that still feels safe. After all, we are always “running late.” We are always in a hurry. And we are so busy.

The forgiving roadway lulls us into a false sense of security. Vigilance and concentration wane on the forgiving road. Is it any wonder that today, we increasingly see motorists driving at high speeds with one hand, while putting on make-up, drinking coffee, or chatting on the cell phone with the other?

Since we tend to be busy and in a hurry, forgiving streets deliver lots of motorists who drive as fast as they can and “multi-task” while driving. Why? To save time.

The predictable result: An increase in crashes due to speeding, inattentiveness, and recklessness.

Ironically, motorist safety declines and driving skills atrophy, because the forgiving street conditions motorists to be less careful drivers, and lowers the need to maintain or improve driving skills. Increasingly, American motorists drive dangerously, and more ineptly.

Three Lanes vs Four Lanes

Some safety analysts point out that 3-lane roads are noticeably safer than 4-lane roads, in part because, when comparing 3 lanes to 4, average vehicle speeds are reduced, there is less variability in vehicle speeds, and there is less speeding. In addition, there is a significant reduction in what engineers call “conflict” points, and an increase in “sight distance” for turning and crossing traffic on a 3-lane versus 4-lane road (Welch, undated).

This is particularly important for senior citizens who are motorists, because fewer conflict points and increased sight distances means fewer decisions and judgements have to be made to enter or cross a 3-lane road.

Similarly, a 3-lane road reduces the street-crossing distance for pedestrians. Compared to a 4-lane road, a 3-lane can create “refuge” areas where a pedestrian can safely wait until there is a safe gap in traffic before crossing the other half of the street. A refuge is also created for motorists with 3 lanes.

A review of the research on this question raises significant questions as to whether wider roads are safer roads.

Fewer Travel Lanes

A study published in 2002 (Huang, Stewart, Zegeer, 2002) reported that in Oakland CA, a street carrying 24,000 trips per day was converted from four lanes to three. The number of annual crashes went from 81 before to 68 after. On another street in Oakland was narrowed, crashes went down 52 percent. In Minnesota, a road diet resulted in a 33-percent reduction in injury crashes. In Billings MT, a road diet resulted in 62 percent fewer crashes after travel lanes were removed. In Lewistown PA, removal of travel lanes saw the number of crashes drop to almost zero. Finally, these researchers found that in Seattle WA, a number of road diets were analyzed, and a 34-percent reduction in total crashes and a 7-percent drop in injury crashes was noted.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project (1999) released a study in 1999 that found a strong link between aggressive driving deaths and increased road capacity. Those living in states with the largest number of lane miles per capita were 65 percent more likely to die in an aggressive driving crash than in states with less lane miles per capita. Similarly, those metro areas that added the most lane miles over a five-year period had higher levels of aggressive driving deaths. See their 2003 report for additional information about how big roads are less safe.

The Iowa Department of Transportation (2001) has found that converting a four-lane undivided road to three lanes can improve safety while retaining an acceptable level of service. Their review of research found that when such conversions occurred, there was a reduction in average speeds, a significant reduction in speeding, and a substantial reduction in the total number of crashes.

According to Engwicht (1989), straighter, wider roads encourage greater speed. Accidents that do happen are therefore more severe, resulting in more injuries or a greater likelihood of death.

There is a large body of research which suggests that increasing the safety of a car or road simply encourages the driver to take greater risks. Drivers are willing to take a certain amount of risk in exchange for the benefit of faster traveling time. This risk is added to the safety limits of the car or road. The new safety features lull the driver into a new sense of security. Vigilance, concentration and attentiveness wane.

Welch (Welch, undated) conducted an analysis of converting a two-lane road to a four-lane road in Ft. Madison IA. This conversion resulted in a 4 percent increase in traffic volume, a 4 percent increase in corridor travel delay, a 2.5 mph increase in mid-block 85th percentile speed, a 14 percent increase in accidents and an 88 percent increase in injuries. The report also found that traffic traveling more than 5 mph over speed limit increased from 0.5% to 4.2%.

Welch reports that in Billings MT, when a four-lane was converted to a three-lane road, the number of reported accidents decreased from 37 in the 20 months before to 14 in the 20 months after conversion. No increase in traffic delay was found.

Despite initial apprehension from the local community and its engineers, Welch indicates that a conversion from four lanes to three in Storm Lake IA (US 71) resulted in an observed improvement in safety (“an immediate large reduction in accidents”). The Iowa DOT Office of Transportation Safety has begun actively promoting conversion of four-lane roads to three-lane when a concern about safety is expressed. In Helena MT, an urban primary highway (US 12) was converted from four lanes to three. (City staff and other state staff engineers now support the conversion after observing an improvement in traffic operations and a reduction in accidents.) In a study conducted for the Minnesota DOT, it was found that the highest urban corridor accident rates are found on four-lane undivided roads. In fact, the collision rate was 35 percent higher than on urban three-lane roads. Howard Preston, who conducted the study, stated that he would convert most four-lane roads with less than 20,000 car trips per day to three-lane roads “in a heartbeat.”

In Duluth MN, a conversion from four lanes to three (21st Ave East) was initially opposed by many. After conversion, the Duluth News-Tribune editorial had this to say: “When Duluth officials announced they would convert busy 21st Avenue East…from four lanes to two, with a turn lane in the middle, some armchair analysts predicted it wouldn’t work. The News-Tribune Opinion page was among them. Well, it works. About everyone agrees-from city traffic officials to neighbors-that the change has eased congestion and reduced drivers’ speed making it safer for pedestrians…”

Frequently, according to Welch, emergency vehicles find it difficult to travel down four-lane roads. Emergency vehicles typically need to wait for traffic to move over to the curb lane to get out of the way. But a center two-way left-turn lane usually has less vehicle conflicts, and often produces less delay for emergency vehicles traveling down it.

Hoyle (1995) points out that widened roads are alleged to be safer roads based on data provided by those in favor of many road widenings. However, data showing a decrease in crashes per vehicle mile don’t take into account the fact that widened roads encourage extra car trips that would not have happened had the road not been widened. Widened roads also encourage longer trip lengths. When such factors are taken into account, crash rates per trip or per hour spent on the road remain nearly the same.

Michael Ronkin (2001) suggests that the most effective way to reduce vehicle speed is by reducing the number of road lanes. “With two lanes in each direction, regardless of width, a driver who wants to move faster than the car in front can get into the adjacent lane and pass. With one lane in each direction, the slowest car sets the pace for all cars behind it.” While driving in Boston recently, he found that “lanes are narrow, very narrow, but on multi-lane one-way streets, cars zipped along at incredibly high speeds for urban streets, around 40 MPH…”

Ronkin notes a great deal of misunderstanding among pedestrian advocates about the speeds. “Pedestrians are more threatened by the occasional car going much faster than reasonable, than by cars travelling at an average speed.” On multi-lane roads, “the crossing pedestrian has several threats and challenges: the possibility of a car going faster than the rest of traffic could be invisible as it is masked by another car, its speed may not be apparent to the pedestrian. That makes it very difficult to judge adequate gaps. With one lane in each direction, a gap is a gap.”

One of the most frequent types of fatal crashes “is the multiple threat-a driver stops to let pedestrian cross on a multi-lane road, and the pedestrian is struck (and usually killed) by a driver passing in the adjacent lane.” Ronkin points out that this type of crash is not possible if there is no adjacent lane.

For Ronkin, another important contributor to crashes, besides speed, is the “complexity” involved in crossing a street. After analyzing a great many fatal crashes, he concludes that many of those crashes presented both the pedestrian and the driver with a relatively complex situation. According to Ronkin, “there just wasn’t enough time for both parties to react to an unforeseen event.” He concludes by pointing out the importance, in designing a road crossing, of creating an environment that that minimizes the number of decisions that must be made simultaneously..

In sum, Ronkin indicates that there have been “demonstrated reductions in crashes” when a road had lanes removed-convincingly so.

Narrow Lanes

Joseph R. Molinaro (1991) reports that wider travel lanes are more dangerous because they encourage higher-speed driving. Larger neighborhood collector streets work well with only 26 feet of width, and smaller neighborhood streets are safe at 20-24 feet. He also points out that residential streets should use tighter turns in order to force slower motorist speeds. With a smaller turn radius, motorists are more likely to come to a full stop than a more dangerous rolling stop.

The ITE Transportation Planning Council Committee (ITE, undated) cites the American Association of State Highway Officials, which found that “‘[t]he number of accidents increases with an increase in the number of decisions required by the driver.’ A corollary to this truism is that the actual and potential effects of each driver-decision become more significant as the speed of the particular motor vehicle increases.”

It is quite common for engineers to design a road for the rare large truck. Such design requires large turning radii and wide travel lanes. These relatively large dimensions far exceed those of passenger cars most common on residential streets. The overscaled design of these roads encourage faster passenger car speeds by the most frequent motor vehicles on these roads.

“Clearly, reducing the width of a street,” according to ITE, “has the effect of reducing vehicular speeds.”

The Conservation Law Foundation (1995) finds that vehicle speeds increase when roads are widened because there is an extra “safety cushion” provided by the increased lateral distances and increased sight distances. Psychologically, the wider road tells the motorist that it is safer to speed up, and since motorists tend to drive at the fastest speed they feel safe at, faster speeds are seen on wider roads with a higher perceived “safety cushion.” In addition, the field of vision of the motorist shrinks as speed increases, which reduces the ability of the motorist to see things (such as cars or pedestrians) that are ahead.

The Foundation also points out that designing for faster driving speeds, while possibly reducing the frequency of crashes, also increase the severity of car crashes.

Swift, Painter, and Goldstein (1998) conducted a study that analyzed the safest street widths with regard to accident frequency. Their study found that “as street width widens, accidents per mile per year increases exponentially, and that the safest residential street width is 24 feet (curb face).”

Indeed, crash rates were 18 times higher on 48-foot wide streets than on 24-foot wide streets.

The authors concluded, in part, by calling for a re-evaluation of public safety. That local governments recognize that the chance of injury or death due to, say, a neighborhood fire, is quite small compared to the much higher probability of injury or death in a neighborhood due to speeding traffic. That the reduced number of injuries or deaths resulting from wide streets and allegedly faster fire truck response time is tiny in comparison to the comparatively large number of injuries or deaths that occur due to speeding cars-a problem that increases in frequency due to widened streets. The local government should “ask if it is better to reduce dozens of potential vehicle accidents, injuries and deaths [through the creation of more modest streets], or provide wide streets for no apparent benefit to fire-related injuries or deaths.”

Even if more modest streets increased fire injury risks slightly (a problem not found by the study), modest streets would still be safer than wide streets because the risk of car injuries is so much higher than fire injuries.

In other words, by focusing public safety on life safety, rather than fire safety, a much larger number of community injuries and deaths can be managed and perhaps reduced.

A large number of firefighters are starting to understand that over-sized streets have resulted in streets that are not safe for families, while providing few, if any, benefits regarding fire safety and emergency response times, according to Siegman (2002).

Siegman relates a story from Dan Burden, a colleague who works in the field of safe street design:

While in Honolulu last week doing two school traffic calming charrettes our team had two tragic nights. In both cases a squad of firemen were with us for the evening, learning about and giving good input into traffic calming their neighborhoods. They had their truck with them in case they received a call. When asked by a member of the audience what they thought of the traffic calming plan the Captain said that they rarely, if ever, can expect a fire in the area….and that their concern is to lessen the speeds on area roads so that they are protecting rather than rescuing lives. They had good reason to say this … during the evening the firemen were called out to respond to a pedestrian tragedy several blocks from our meeting room, and in our project site.

The next school traffic calming meeting we again had four firemen, and their apparatus. We had just settled them down to a design table to design traffic calming solutions when they leaped up to attend a call. They, too, came back before the meeting was over. They had provided first assistance for a head-on crash of two motorists.

The meeting ended at 9:00. At 9:05 a bicyclist was hit (and presumably attended by these firemen). The cyclist was a star athlete on the University of Honolulu campus. She was killed one block from our school, in one of our crosswalks.

“Many firefighters,” according to Siegman, “realize that traffic crashes are a far greater hazard in our communities than fires, because they so often have to pick up the pieces.”

Siegman reminds us that “for every one person killed in a fire, more than eleven die in traffic crashes. And that for every one person injured by fire, 148 are injured in traffic crashes.”

A great many firefighters also tell us that fire truck response time does not depend simply on the width of a street.

For example, Siegman tells us that fire departments know that response time is a product of the speed of travel and the distance from the firehouse.

When streets are walkable and connected as they were in traditionally designed neighborhoods, they “usually allow far more direct routing than disconnected cul-de-sac designs.” Even when narrow (or “skinny”), the connected streets, Siegman points out, “can often deliver equal or better response times.” Connected streets also reduce the probability of traffic congestion, and congestion slows response times. “That understanding,” notes Siegman, “is apparently not yet reflected in fire codes, which discuss street width, but…have no specifications whatsoever on directness of routing, or distance from home to the arterial, or to the fire station.”

Siegman points out that a number of other fire departments are “no longer ordering U.S.-made fire engines, choosing instead the more maneuverable European models, which work well with smaller, safer, pedestrian-friendly street designs.”

According to Siegman, “we aren’t yet at the stage where all firefighters have excellent training in street design and traffic safety.” He wonders “how many communities still design their streets and intersections to accommodate the largest fire truck in the fleet, without having weighed pedestrian safety effects as part of the truck purchase.”

In conclusion, Siegman presents us with the following eye-opening statistics for fire and traffic fatalities and injuries in 1999 in the United States. In that year, “3,570 civilian (i.e. non-firefighter)” fire deaths occurred, and 21,875 civilians were injured. In addition, 112 fire fighters died while on duty-11 of them in traffic crashes. He also reports that “41,611 people were killed and 3,236,000 people were injured in the estimated 6,279,000 police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes. 4,188,000 crashes involved property damage only.”

As reported by Finch (1994) and Preston (1995), every one mph reduction in traffic speed, in general, reduces vehicle collisions by five percent, and reduces fatalities to an even greater extent.

Narrowing travel lanes made things safer unless the narrowing was done to accommodate more travel lanes, according to a report from the Transportation Research Board (1994).

References Cited

Conservation Law Foundation. Take Back Your Streets. Boston MA. May 1995.

Engwicht, D. (ed.) Traffic Calming: The Solution to Urban Traffic and a New Vision for Neighborhood Livability. 1989.

Finch, D.J., Kompfner, P., Lockwood, C.R., Maycock, G. Speed, Speed Limits and Accidents. Transport Research Laboratory (Crowthorne, UK), Report 58, 1994.

Hoyle, C. Traffic Calming. American Planning Association. Planning Advisory Service Report Number 456. 1995.

Huang, H.F., Stewart, J.R. and Zegeer, C.V. Evaluation of Lane Reduction “Road Diet” Measures on Crashes and Injuries. Transportation Research Record 1784: 80-90. 2002.

Iowa Department of Transportation. Guidelines for the Conversion of Urban 4-lane Undivided Roadways to 3-lane Two-Way Left-turn Lane Facilities. April 2001.

ITE Transportation Planning Council Committee, Traditional Neighborhood Development: Street Design Guidelines. 5P-8. Undated.

Molinaro, J.R. Rethinking Residential Streets. Planning Commissioners Journal. Vol. 1:1. November/December 1991.

Preston, B. “Cost Effective Ways to Make Walking Safer for Children and Adolescents,” Injury Prevention, 1995, pp. 187-190.

Ronkin, M. Pedestrian & Bicycle Program Manager, Oregon Department of Transportation. March 27, 2001.

Siegman, P. Siegman & Associates, Town & Transportation Planning, 260 Palo Alto Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94301. August 4, 2002 email submitted to a Dan Burden/Walkable Communities internet discussion group.

Surface Transportation Policy Project. Aggressive Driving. Washington DC. April 1999.

Swift, P., Painter, D. and Goldstein M. Residential Street Typology and Injury Accident Frequency. Copyright Peter Swift, Swift and Associates. 1998.

Transportation Research Board. Low-volume rural roads (Roadway Widths for Low-Traffic-Volume Roads). Transportation Research Board. NR362, 1994.

Welch, T.M. The Conversion of Four-Lane Undivided Urban Roadways to Three-Lane Facilities. Transportation Research Board. TRB Circular E-C019: Urban Street Symposium. Undated.


Newspaper Editor Sings Praises of Narrowing Main Street in Florida

By Ron Cunningham, The Gainesville (FL) Sun

Sunday, June 23, 2002


Bringing back University Avenue

“The city shall encourage University Avenue to become Gainesville’s ‘Signature Street,’ as a potential magnet for high-quality development. The City’s investment in infrastructure on this corridor, from West 38th Street to Waldo Road, shall be the highest priority in the city.”

– Objective 3.2 in the Urban Design element of Gainesville’s Comprehensive Plan.

Take a walk along Gainesville’s “Signature Street,” in search of “high quality” development. Start at the entrance of the University of Florida, at 13th Street, and walk north toward 6th Street.

Pass the garish orange-and-blue gas station and convenience store. Stroll by the designer nail salons, tattoo parlors and body piercing emporiums that seem to go in and out of business with revolving-door regularity. If you want to pawn a watch, or if you are in the market for exotic lingerie, handcuffs, a gas mask or a samurai sword, you’ve come to the right place. Ditto if you need gasoline, rolling papers, used clothing, lottery tickets, a lube job or a U-Haul rental.

Notice the empty store fronts, eight of them at last count. Drop into one of the three or four popular restaurants that have withstood the test of time despite the street’s seemingly inhospitable business environment.

Take in the fast-food joints, the buy, sell or trade CD shops, pawn shops, the occasional bookstore and the army surplus store.

Notice the scrawny street trees and the weeds poking stubbornly up out of the cracks of the narrow gray cement sidewalk. Try to ignore the litter and cigarette butts, but do admire the graffiti that decorates many of the building fronts, street light poles, newspaper racks and street signs.

Observe the unkempt appearance of many of the building facades – the discolored awning here, the fading paint there. Notice how some businesses have plastered over their windows with come-on ads touting discount prices, while others have taken pains to maintain an attractive storefront and even tidy landscaping.

Sit on one of the few public benches and take in the street life. Watch the competition for finite sidewalk space between the occasional pedestrian and the cyclist who, having no death-wish, declines to ride on the street. Dig into your pockets for change as the panhandler on the rusty bicycle approaches.

And absorb the noise of the street: that nearly continuous roar of the traffic that makes normal conversation on the sidewalk difficult. Watch the automobiles, pickups, SUVs and even semi-tractor trailers jockey for position on four-lane University – very often at speeds quite in excess of the posted 30 mph.

And then recall the words of South Miami town planning consultant Victor Dover three years ago, during the final presentation to the City Commission of Dover, Kohl and Partners’ plan to turn University Avenue into Gainesville’s “signature” street.

That study focused specifically on transforming University Avenue between 6th Street to 13th Street into Gainesville’s gateway to the University of Florida.

“Every city needs great buildings and great public places,” Dover told the commissioners. “Great cities are defined more than anything else by their great streets. Great streets are the public rooms of a city. And they are almost always a result of careful planning.”

Last Monday, Dan Burden, nationally renown consultant with Walkable Communities Inc. took that stroll. He surveyed the narrow sidewalks and marginal nature of many of the businesses, doled out change to the panhandler and snapped a few photos along the way.

Long based in High Springs, Burden spends most of this time helping dysfunctional cities around the country turn traffic-congested, and usually blighted, corridors into pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly walkable town centers.

“This is a street that has no sense of itself, it could be any suburban roadway in the country,” Burden said. “It really hasn’t healed itself in 20 years. . . . There are businesses here, but it’s not the highest and best use of University Avenue. People are not investing in their buildings, they’re run-down. It’s not a good mix of uses.”

When he gave his presentation for transforming University Avenue, in 1999, Dover cautioned the commission: “It’s only going to get more difficult as you wait.” That has turned out to be a prescient statement.

The Metropolitan Transportation and Planning Organization has put the redesigning and narrowing of University Avenue on its long-range Transportation Improvement List. But the project won’t work its way to the top of the list until about 2010. And even then, it is uncertain that funding will be available to reduce four lanes of traffic down to two lanes and a turning lane, to provide on-street parking, to widen the sidewalks and make other improvements.

And then there is the question of political and public support. Already, a popular backlash has developed against the notion of narrowing University Avenue. In the last election, the last two city commissioners to vote for the Dover, Kohl recommendations left office. Pegeen Hanrahan, stepped down due to term limits; John Barrow was not re-elected.

Both those former commissioners were bullish on remaking University Avenue to “calm traffic” and be more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists and investment. Both have since been replaced by commissioners who ran in opposition to reducing lanes on University Avenue.

One on them, Commissioner Tony Domenech, ran radio ads proclaiming that it was “insane” to eliminate lanes on Gainesville’s major east-west corridor.

“I conceptually have difficulty understanding how you can move people from Point A to Point B by restricting the amount of flow,” Domenech said recently. “It’s just like a pipe – there’s a certain volume that goes through the pipe, and when you restrict the pipe, you increase the pressure going through there.”

However, a traffic analysis completed by Orlando traffic engineer Walter Kulash shows that reducing lanes on University Avenue would not create the traffic gridlock that many opponents fear.

Traffic counts record some 26,500 vehicles a day on University Avenue near 13th Street, dwindling to about 18,500 vehicles per day east of Main Street. Kulash’s analysis showed that 1,740 vehicles an hour could be accommodated on a two-lane University Avenue.

That count is exceeded on University by, at most, about 200 vehicles per hour between noon and 6 p.m. on weekdays. Some of that additional traffic will elect to divert to other routes, Kulash predicted, but even if it does not, motorists “will experience an additional 20- to 30-second delay – during the peak period only – at each signal on University Avenue between NW 6th Street and NW 12th St. This makes for a total time loss of 1 to 2 minutes along the route.”

Gainesville’s street grid system also provides numerous alternative routes for motorists on “short trips to and from University, downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods,” Kulash said.

Because University Avenue is a state highway, SR 26, the consultant also mapped out several potential east-west “regional bypasses” that could be used to reroute through-traffic away from University Avenue; the most likely bypass being Archer Road to Williston Road to E. University.

“People are so convinced that traffic is like water; it has to go somewhere,” Kulash said recently. “But we know that once an area becomes vibrant, some traffic disappears. People change their destinations very quickly. What we see when an area becomes viable is that people want to live there and spend time there instead of driving 8 miles out to visit a discount store.”

Among the skeptics of the contention that University Avenue can function just as well as a two-lane road is Aage Schroder, regional secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.

“We don’t think it’s a particularly good idea,” he said. “There’s no way to mitigate the impact on traffic. I’m sure that (reducing lanes) is not the consensus of the community. It’s the consensus of the few.”

If the last election is an indicator, Schroder is probably right. Even among people who do business on University Avenue there is disagreement over changing the street.

“We can’t even greet our customers until they’re inside and the doors are closed,” because of the traffic noise, says Dotty Faibisy, owner of Wild Iris Books. “We’ve got traffic booming up and down University. It’s just not a friendly place for people or bicyclists.”

But across the street, at Myrt’s News, Myrtle Gunter says “narrowing the street is a horrible thought. This is a major east-west connector. My customers can find a parking space when they want to come by for a newspaper.”

“They’ve got to do something,” says Nick Farah, who has owned Farah’s On the Avenue for 23 years. “We’re sitting here and semis are going down the street at 50 mph. I’ve seen a lot of people hurt out there. If not narrowing, they need to do something to calm the traffic.”

While any decision in regard to altering University Avenue may be years away, the city is planning to take several more immediate steps to try to make the avenue more attractive.

A University Avenue “Spruce Up Day,” to clean up pick up litter, remove graffiti and so on is planned for Aug. 2. In addition, the city has plans to pressure wash the sidewalks, paint decorative crosswalks at intersections, improve streetscaping and install more attractive street lighting, parking meter posts, benches and trash cans.

New design standards will also ensure that any future development will conform to the city’s vision to make University Gainesville’s “signature” street. And recently, the commission voted to spend $466,000 to help a Jackson- ville-based company, LB Jax Development, build West University Lofts, a $2.8 million mixed-use development at the intersection of 6th and University.

Chris Brown, a partner in that firm, was a city planner for Delray Beach when that coastal city made the decision to narrow a section of Atlantic Avenue as part of a wildly successful effort to revitalize Delray’s downtown area.

“What about two-lane roads as Main Streets?” Brown posed. “It’s been an economic miracle, the saving grace for retailing downtown. In the late 1980s, the merchants weren’t absolutely convinced, they didn’t even want to see trees on the street blocking their signs. But it really worked in Delray, everybody wants to shop there, and everybody wants to eat there.

“We’re looking forward to the day they beautify University Avenue,” he said. “I think it (University Lofts) will be viable either way, but probably real estate values will go way up if they do narrow the street.”

Traffic calming advocates argue that the city’s planned embellishments alone will do little to improve the commercial viability of University Avenue or to attract more pedestrians or bicyclists (read, customers) to the corridor.

“It’s not a matter of if you do it, but when,” said Burden, who has seen traffic calming pay economic benefits in cities all over the country.

Three essential elements to bringing back University, Burden and others say, are:

1. Wider sidewalks, adequate to support foot traffic, outdoor cafes, bicyclists and other activity. Currently, sidewalks on University are as narrow as 5 or 6 feet. The Dover, Kohl study recommends sidewalks of up to 15 feet in length.

2. On-street parking on both sides of the avenue, not only to accommodate motorists who wish to stop and shop, but also to provide a physical barrier between strollers on the sidewalk and moving traffic.

3. Fewer and narrower travel lanes to slow down traffic and to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross the street. Currently, the travel lanes on University are 12 feet wide, which Kulash calls “interstate highway standard.” The three-lane alternative envisions 11-foot lanes.

“No other business environment in Gainesville is saddling themselves with having 40 mph traffic 3 or 4 feet away from people who are out of their vehicles attempting to enter a business establishment,” Kulash told the commission. “Not even the strip malls put up with those kind of conditions.”

Ultimately, if Gainesville does decide to redesign University Avenue, it will likely first have to negotiate an agreement with the DOT to take over responsibility for the street. “We’re not interested in maintaining it if that’s the case,” Schroder said.

A similar transfer of control was arranged on Main Street, which in two years is scheduled to undergo lane reduction and other improvements from Depot Avenue to N. 8th Avenue. Advocates are hoping that the Main Street project will do exactly what it’s supposed to do – revitalize the street without creating traffic jams – and thereby build support for narrowing University Avenue.

“The way you win public acceptance is by having one great model that proves the world does not fall off its axis if you do this,” Burden said.

Sunday, June 23, 2002

Successful Main Street models

Scenes from an urban landscape:

Scene One: It is Mother’s Day, and Park Avenue is alive with people.

They stroll leisurely up and down one of Florida’s great “Main Streets.” They window-shop at The Gap, the Banana Republic or one of the avenue’s other high-end retail stores. They lunch at the sidewalk cafes, or cross the street for a walk in the park; perhaps to watch a train pull into the Amtrak station.

On the street itself, a steady stream of traffic creeps along. Motorist patiently search for a gap in the wall of parked automobiles that separate pedestrians from motorists, or they duck into side streets looking for an available space. They want to get out of their SUVs and sedans and join the procession of strollers up and down the avenue; to see or to be seen in fashionable Winter Park.

Winter Park, home of Rollins College, is a green oasis of studied elegance in the middle of the unrelenting concrete and asphalt wasteland of suburban northeast Orlando. Hailed as one of Florida’s most “liveable cities,” the town long ago discovered that ambiance is a bankable commodity. Winter Park has some of the highest property values in Central Florida, and Park Avenue is surrounded by expensive homes, condos, townhouses and above-store apartments.

Scene two: It is Mother’s Day and Church Street Station is hanging on for dear life.

Church Street Station, in downtown Orlando, is a Disneyesque attempt to recreate from whole cloth a sort of faux-Bourbon Street atmosphere. It is located right next to I-4 for ease of access. Acres of parking is provided just a few steps away for the convenience of shoppers and night-life seekers. With its turn-of-the-century ambiance and theme park-like flavor, Church Street Station ought to be a consumer magnet in a town that survives on luring the tourists out of their rental cars and hotels and into yet another spending opportunity.

And yet, Church Street Station is on a downhill skid. Rosey O’Grady’s, for years the night-life anchor on the street is gone. The chain stores and restaurants are leaving, one by one. There are empty store fronts where T-shirt shops and souvenir emporiums used to be. Very few people wander about, and a handful of street vendors stand on the sidewalk, expectantly, as though still awaiting the onset of the business day.

Why does a Park Avenue thrive while a Church Street Station dies?

Well, for one thing, Disney and Universal Studios looked at Church Street Station, figured out that there was a market for adult night life that the giant theme parks weren’t capturing and then went after it. Competing with Park Avenue was another story.

“Church Street Station was always commercial tourism,” says Walter Kulash, senior traffic engineer for the Orlando-based community-planning firm of Glatting, Jackson, Kercher, Anglin, Lopez, Rinehart Inc. “Winter Park is a real town center. Church Street Station doesn’t get local people coming on a repeated basis; it didn’t get local people coming at all after awhile.”

Perhaps the lesson of Church Street Station is that you can’t build a pretend Main Street. For downtown commercial and entertainment centers to survive and thrive, they must look and function exactly like what they are supposed to be – the organic heart of the community, not just another roadside tourist attraction.

Florida’s best known and most successful Main Streets – Park Avenue, Miami’s Coconut Grove and South Beach, Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue and Key West’s Duval Street, to name a few – long ago learned the secret to survival in a state that has for half a century blindly embraced suburbanization as the dominant lifestyle: Invest in public infrastructure, pay careful attention to street-scaping and urban trees, adopt design standards that support the village-like character of downtown, and make sure the sidewalks are adequate for people to walk, dine, window shop and congregate.

And above all, get control of the traffic. Traffic is a Main Street killer.

Slow it down by design – with narrow streets, fewer travel lanes, roundabouts, landscaped traffic medians, on-street parking, raised intersections, speed bumps and other “traffic calming” techniques.

In fact, cities all over Florida have begun to “take back” their downtowns in recent years, following successful Main Street models like Winter Park, Coconut Grove and South Beach. From Sarasota to St. Petersburg to New Smyrna Beach to Clearwater to Hollywood, virtually all have adopted a variety of traffic calming policies designed to put automobiles in their place and bring people and investment back to long-neglected city cores.

Here are a few examples of cities that have taken back their downtowns:

FT. PIERCE – BACK TO THE FUTURE: “I grew up here . . . we belong here,” says Jim Gately, from behind the counter of his popular sidewalk eatery Gately’s Grille at the corner of Orange Avenue and 2nd Street. “People had abandoned downtown for years, and now they’re coming back. And they’re not blowing by at 35 or 40 mph, either. They’re getting out of their cars and spending money.”

For three years, Gately has been doing a brisk business in Fort Pierce’s newly restored downtown, an area that has taken on the feel and flavor of the Mediterranean village that town fathers had begun to build in the good times of the 1920s – before the Florida land boom went bust.

Fort Pierce is a city of 20 square miles and 37,516 people. Located where Florida’s Turnpike meets I-95, it sits at the northern tip of the burgeoning Gold Coast megalopolis. A rather nondescript city of sprawling, unconnected subdivisions, Fort Pierce is also one of South Florida’s less affluent coastal communities.

But in 1995, city officials set out to rebuild an urban core that had long ago been dissected by U.S. 1, which funnels 40,000 autos a day through the heart of Fort Pierce. Over the course of dozens of community charettes and workshops, traffic calming emerged as an important component of revitalization.

To the east of U.S. 1, Orange Avenue, a three-lane, one-way high-speed road running into the heart of downtown, was converted to a two-lane, two-way street. To the west, Delaware Avenue, a once elegant street lined with stately oaks, was reduced from four-lanes to two lanes. Several other downtown corridors were also put on a “road diet.” Indian River Drive, a well-traveled road along the lagoon that connects to the beach, was fitted with a traffic circle at the intersection with Avenue A.

The roundabout – with its carved pink stone base and lushly landscaped center – is both an efficient way to move traffic through downtown and a popular “photo opportunity” spot for tourists. This in marked contrast to the ugly metal barrier that once blocked the view of the waterfront at that intersection as motorists backed up in all directions while waiting for the light to change.

“Multiple lanes don’t move traffic,” says Ramon Trias, Fort Pierce city planner. “All it does it stack traffic. The problem with the old traffic pattern was that it was dysfunctional.”

In addition to reconfiguring the roadways, Fort Pierce invested something like $20 million over six years – building a new downtown library and police substation, restoring the 1925 City Hall, and renovating the 1923 Sunrise Theater into a 1,200-seat cultural arts center. An abandoned high school on Delaware Avenue was turned into a magnet school for the arts. Such expenditures in turn generated more than $31 million in additional investments, and the downtown tax base has doubled.

With its red-brick sidewalks and stately palm tree-lined streets, downtown Fort Pierce has a low vacancy rate. And the street narrowings notwithstanding, some 1,500 workers and commuters move through downtown each day, not to mention 150,000 visitors a year.

“If traffic gets bad, people drive less,” says Trias. “Isn’t that logical?”

WEST PALM BEACH – MOVING BACK IN: Just a decade ago, West Palm Beach was an urban jungle at night.

Drug dealing and prostitution was the main commerce on historic Clematis Street. Not far away, several blocks of one-time crack houses had been razed, and the property abandoned. In 1993, Clematis Street had a 90 percent vacancy rate and property values running as low as $10 per square foot.

If you visit Clematis Street today, you can ride a free trolly up and down its 4,500-foot length past more than 80 restaurants and retail establishments. Property values have skyrocketed and expensive new residential developments have sprung up around it.

A colorful downtown plaza at its eastern terminus sports an amphitheater and a “dancing” fountain, where delighted children drench themselves under the watchful eyes of a city “fountain guard.” On Friday nights, thousands of people gather on the plaza for city-sponsored block parties.

And at the site of the former crack houses has risen City Place, an impressive $550 million mixed-used development of stores and restaurants, a multiplex movie theater and performing arts center, townhouses and rental apartments. City Place has attracted several major chain stores, including a Publix Super Market that, thanks to local design standards, looks like anything but a Publix.

A decade ago, West Palm Beach’s ability to finance public improvements was practically nonexistent. So the city went into traffic calming as a reclamation and economic development tool in a big way – aggressively narrowing lanes and redesigning streets to slow down traffic all over the city.

“The city was broke, and its physical environment was dilapidated,” senior city planners Tim Stillings and Ian Lockwood have written of West Palm’s experience. “West Palm Beach had much larger issues that required immediate attention beyond simply speeding, collisions and cut-through motor vehicle traffic. At the heart of many of its challenges were the negative effects of those vehicles in the city and past treatment of street environments.

“The evolution of traffic calming combined with the use of New Urbanist principles and a host of other initiatives allowed the city to begin its metamorphosis into a ‘masterpiece city.’ ”

Clematis Street, one-way with three travel lanes and two parking lanes, was converted back into a two-lane, two-way street with angle-parking on both sides of the street. City Place was likewise designed and constructed along New Urbanist principles, serviced by two-lane streets and on-street parallel parking. Soon, two other major downtown streets, Dixie Highway and Olive, will also be narrowed in an ongoing traffic-calming effort.

“Once Clematis Street was done, businesses started coming back downtown,” says Stillings. “It’s not only a better business climate but also a much nicer environment for people.”

As a result of the city’s revitalization efforts, people are moving back into downtown West Palm Beach. As much as any city in Florida, revitalized West Palm Beach is benefiting from the “empty-nest syndrome” as baby boomers whose children have left home are electing to leave the suburbs to spend their golden years in a more stimulating urban environment.

“The public realm is the connective tissue of our everyday world,” Nancy Graham, the former West Palm Beach mayor who led the downtown revitalization effort, once told a reporter. “Human scale must prevail over the needs of motor vehicles.”

STUART – NO SURRENDER TO DOT: For residents of Stuart, a former railroad town nestled in a tight peninsula on the St. Lucie River, the crises point occurred in 1988. That’s when the state Department of Transportation made hurricane evacuation plans that included construction of a new multi-lane bridge across the river, widening U.S. 1. and running it through the heart of this small but viable downtown.

“The DOT is an enormous, rich, self-righteous bureaucracy experienced in getting its way,” a little-known architect named Andres Duany told the city in a report that year. “You will have a battle, but it is one that must be fought.

“Remember, DOT in its single-minded pursuit of traffic flow has destroyed more American towns than General Sherman.”

Duany went on to become a founder of the New Urbanist movement, and Stuart went on to win its war against DOT. The new bridge was built and U.S. 1 improved, but in a way that bypassed, not gutted, downtown. Downtown Stuart today is a picturesque village of narrow, interesting, sometimes confusing streets lined with prosperous restaurants, gift shops, art galleries, a restored theater and night spots. It’s attraction as a destination is such that it is difficult to find a parking space downtown even on a weeknight. And some of the most expensive housing in Martin County is located on the edges of downtown.

“When you think about it, lack of parking is a great problem to have,” says City Planner Kim DeLaney. “It means people want to come here.”

Stuart’s renovations have all been designed to maintain downtown as a “walkable community.” Some 21,000 employees work within a two-mile radius of downtown. As many as eight freight trains a day come through the town center, and 8,000 vehicles move through downtown during the evening rush hour.

Traffic is heavy at such times, but not gridlocked. Stuart’s “Confusion Circle” – a much celebrated roundabout located where no fewer than six streets and a railroad crossing come together – somehow manages to keep traffic flowing more or less smoothly. Indeed, watching traffic move around the circle, one has difficulty imagining how the flow of traffic from that many converging streets could even be regulated by traffic signals.

“We do see a lot of accidents, but they’re all fender-benders, because nobody is driving too fast,” says Loretta Englishman, who works at an insurance agency located across the street from Confusion Circle.

“Once in a while you’ll see senior citizens go the wrong way on the circle, but people will usually just get out of their way.”

Only one street leading into downtown, Colorado Avenue, is wider than two lanes. It is visibly the least attractive and economically stagnant street in downtown, and the city is making plans to slow down traffic on Colorado in order to stimulate investment and attract people. The anticipation is that revitalizing Colorado will, in turn, help spark reinvestment in some of the less affluent residential streets that intersect it.

n LOS OLAS – PART-TIME CALMING: Los Olas Boulevard has always been an elegant avenue of expensive shops, fashionable galleries and offices. But the eastern shopping district of downtown Fort Lauderdale all but closed down at the end of the working day, and for much of the off-season, for that matter.

“Some merchants used to put up signs at the end of Memorial Day saying ‘Come back again next season,’ ” recalled former Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Hanbury. “You could roll a bowling ball down Los Olas after 5 p.m. and never touch anyone.”

Even as Fort Lauderdale’s downtown business district was undergoing a major economic revitalization, Los Olas remained an under-used corridor. These days, however, Los Olas is alive with people night and day. The city did two things to transform Los Olas into the city’s most popular nighttime and weekend destination.

“It was really simple,” said Emmett McTigue, a major downtown landowner. “They changed the ordinance to allow outside dining on the sidewalks, and they narrowed Los Olas from four lanes to two lanes and allowed on-street parking during the nights and weekends.”

Actually, it wasn’t as simple as that. City officials wanted to permanently reduce lanes on Los Olas; and they had traffic counts to support their contention that four lanes were unnecessary. But Los Olas is a county road that connects downtown to the beach, and county officials wouldn’t allow it.

In the end, the county compromised by allowing evening and weekend lane reduction, while maintaining four lanes during working hours.

The compromise made a huge difference in the life of the street. The transformation of the street via part-time traffic calming has brought considerable new private investment to the area, as more and more people want to live near downtown’s lively Los Olas.

“Most of the redevelopment effort has been private,” Hanbury said. “But the catalyst was outdoor dining and on-street parking.”

Similar success stories have been repeated all over Florida, in cities large and small – in Delray Beach, DeLand, Lake Worth, Boca Raton and elsewhere.

“There’s no way to refute it anymore, when it’s done right it works every time,” says Tom Flemming, who was Main Street coordinator when Delray Beach brought its downtown back, and who is now working to create a downtown in Oakland Park, a Broward County municipality that never had a city center.

“Downtowns can’t function with both the automobile and the pedestrian being the priority.”

Sunday, June 23, 2002

Speed kills (Main Streets)

I guess I ought to start by telling you about my first traffic ticket.

I was 19, it was a Saturday night, and I was cruising down Hollywood Boulevard in my rust-yellow ’54 Studebaker.

I was driving too fast, ran a red light, and one of Hollywood’s finest spotted me from about two blocks away and nailed me before I got halfway around Hollywood Circle.

In retrospect – 35 years worth of retrospect – all I can say in my defense is that I was young and stupid and under the influence of that most powerful of all American intoxicants . . . gasoline.

And by way of extenuating circumstances, I might add that at the time you could have fired a cannon down the middle of Hollywood Boulevard and not worried too much about hitting anybody.

That’s because the downtown Hollywood of my youth was pretty much a ghost town after dark. During the daytime, too, for that matter.

Oh, when I had been 7 or 8, the place had been hopping; with no fewer than two movie theaters, bookstores, drug stores and all of the other necessary components of urban life.

But by the time I reached high school pretty much all the commercial action had moved west, out beyond I-95, where an impressive new edifice called the Hollywood Mall had risen.

Downtown Hollywood had begun to dry up and blow away – just as Main Street commercial centers all over America were crumbling in the face of the inexorable march of commerce and people toward the ever-expanding suburbs in the Interstate Age.

So why not speed through downtown Hollywood, a young, stupid, hormone-besotted teen of the time (like myself) might have reasoned. All the better to get out of that Nowheresville on the double.

I only bring up this sordid incident from my past to make a few important points about drivers, downtowns and urban evolution.

To wit:

* If you give motorists the means and the motive to drive really, really fast, a lot of them do just that. Even if it’s in the middle of town. Hollywood Boulevard, with four broad lanes, provided the means. An all but deserted and seedy downtown provided the motive.

* If you turn downtown streets into thoroughfares so people can drive to the suburbs as quickly as possible, you shouldn’t be surprised if those downtowns begin to dry up and blow away.

* And these days, if you drive down through South Florida on I-95 and take a look at all the “suburban” malls that helped turn once-vibrant downtowns into urban dinosaurs, you may notice that a lot of them have themselves achieved dinosaur status – having succumbed in their turn to the relentless march of urban evolution. They can’t compete with the larger mega-malls that have sprung up far to the west of Florida’s “first” interstate.

All of which, I suppose, is a way of saying that time, drivers and progress are fairly ruthless predators in the relentless march of urban evolution.

Or, at least, they used to be.

Seems like old times

Recently, I had the opportunity to go back to Hollywood for the first time in many years. I was astounded to see that downtown Hollywood was booming – almost as though urban evolution had begun to march backward.

It has cafes, restaurants and jazz clubs. It has art galleries and dance studios. It has retail, offices and pricey over-the-store townhouses. An eight-story apartment complex with parking garage is rising just two streets away – the first new downtown housing in decades. A new downtown hotel recently opened its doors on Harrison Street, and the value of apartments in an aging high-rise on the other side of Hollywood Circle have shot up tremendously.

And downtown Hollywood is funky – with buildings painted in a variety of bright colors, and people wandering around in the wee hours of the night. At a sidewalk cafe, a woman in a red dress sang Italian love songs to the accompaniment of a keyboard and base guitar. People sitting on benches in a pocket park that wasn’t there before. All very cool.

“We’re like a mini-South Beach and a mini-mini Los Olas Blvd.,” says Louis Morningside, a jeweler who has done business in downtown Hollywood for 40 years, and who is delighted at its resurrection from near-comatose status.

So how did downtown Hollywood seemingly reverse the course of urban evolution and make that giant leap back into the future?

It put Hollywood Boulevard on a “road diet.”

It narrowed the downtown portion of the boulevard to two lanes of traffic, one going each way. It installed angle-in parking slots in the heavily landscaped center median strip to add to the parking that has always existed along the sidewalks. It slowed, not stopped, the movement of traffic through the heart of downtown.

It made downtown Hollywood safe once again for pedestrians, shoppers, entertainment-seekers and other living things.

And this on a major east-west corridor that handles nearly 21,000 vehicles a day – not all that different from University Avenue’s traffic flow.

So did the city trade a revitalized downtown for a gridlocked Hollywood Boulevard? I asked Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti if the narrowing of downtown caused traffic to back up to the west of downtown, toward City Hall.

“Yes,” she admitted. “On Friday night, because so many people want to come downtown.”

And listen, that gasoline-besotted teen driver in the ’54 Studebaker couldn’t have sped through the center of this downtown on a bet. It’s very design mitigates against speeding, reckless driving and other uncivil acts of motorized irresponsibility. It virtually forces motorists to be polite and act responsibly.

Something else, too: When the city narrowed downtown Hollywood Boulevard, it provided a convenient traffic detour by converting lanes on Harrison Street to one-way east, and lanes on Tyler Street to one-way west. But now the city is converting both those parallel “bypass” streets back to two-lane, two-way traffic because the detour route isn’t necessary.

That’s because Hollywood, like Gainesville, is built on a traditional grid system, and drivers who want to avoid the downtown “bottleneck” have plenty of options for doing so.

Oh yes, and these days, Harrison Street – once the “bypass” street – is getting almost as much activity and new business as downtown Hollywood Boulevard.

Downtown Hollywood, the scene of my boyhood, is back. So is “Main Street” Fort Pierce, Stuart, Delray Beach, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, DeLand, New Smyrna Beach and a few other once-moribund central city districts that I recently had occasion to pass through during a five-day, 1,000-mile tour of Florida cities that are on the mend.

Backlash on University

It was a tour I decided to undertake after the last Gainesville City Commission election that saw the defeat of one “new urbanist” incumbent and the “surprise” election of two Republicans who had campaigned against long-laid plans to reduce traffic lanes on University Avenue as a means of reviving that unattractive and economically stunted connector between downtown and the University of Florida.

For the winning candidates, the University Avenue issue turned out to be a “target of opportunity.”

“It wasn’t even an issue that was on my campaign platform,” said Commissioner Ed Braddy. “But I can tell you that from going door-to-door, this (narrowing University Avenue) is not something that was warmly received. People were 8-to-1 or 9-to-1 against it.”

The decision to redesign University Avenue from a four-lane thoroughfare to a three lane (one lane each way plus a turn lane) was made three years ago after an exhaustive series of charettes, workshops, public hearings and consultant studies. And it sits so far down on the area’s transportation improvement list that it won’t happen for several more years in any case.

If it ever happens.

Because, if the last election is any indication, public support for the project is weak to nonexistent. And given the results of the last election, it’s not even clear that redesigning University Avenue to make it Gainesville’s “signature street” could even get three votes on the City Commission anymore. Warren Nielsen seems to be the only unabashed cheerleader for the project left on the commission.

So is the University Avenue project one of those “smart growth” flights of fancy whose time has come and gone? Are we so jealous of our prerogative to drive 40 mph or faster smack through the center of town that we are willing to tolerate indefinitely the blight and economic stagnation of University Avenue as an ugly means to a necessary end?

I hope not. Because Florida’s premier university city deserves a better University Avenue than it’s got.

University Avenue really ought to be Gainesville’s showcase – a “destination,” not a thoroughfare. A place where people want to go to congregate, walk, park, dine, shop, work, live and be entertained. A corridor of urban culture that reflects the values of a town that brags about hosting Florida’s “flagship” university.

Anyone who has ever been to Madison, Wis., Boulder, Col., Berkley, Calif. or even Athens, Ga. – university cities with vital, attractive downtown centers that are worthy of the great institutions they host – has to be a little disheartened with our willingness to settle for something considerably less. And for what? The ability to drive quickly away from UF’s campus?

“I’ve been yelling and screaming for years, ‘let’s stop resting on our laurels and get a grip,’ ” says Linda Crider, an avid bicyclist with UF’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “We are way behind other university communities.”

Behind the curve

And it’s not just comparable university communities that make us look bad. We’re also “way behind” a lot of ostensibly less progressive Florida towns, as I learned on my recent five-day tour.

They say that travel is a broadening experience. But it can also be a bit depressing. Except for the beach, I remembered the Hollywood of my boyhood to be a somewhat unappealing city. Imagine my surprise to return home recently and find out that Hollywood proper has become considerably more attractive and economically vibrant than the enlightened university town I’ve lived in for more than a quarter of a century.

And if you really want to be depressed, visit DeLand, a college town less than half our size hosting private university, Stetson, that is nowhere near UF’s stature.

Woodland Boulevard, DeLand’s University Avenue, is one of Florida’s best-kept downtown secrets; winner of the “Great American Mainstreet Award” in 1997. It puts our little three-block downtown to shame. And if you picked DeLand’s downtown up and laid it down on top of University Avenue, it would easily stretch from UF’s campus to 6th Street – the section of University Avenue proposed for lane reduction.

“My parents live in DeLand, and I visit there a lot,” says Dotty Faibisy, who owns Wild Iris Books on University Avenue. “I can’t believe the number of people in downtown DeLand. Why can’t we be like that?”

Oh yes, and like University, Woodland, with its two-laned downtown “bottleneck” is a major traffic corridor through DeLand, handling nearly 20,000 vehicles a day. Volusia County recently built a brand new courthouse in downtown DeLand, and the town still hasn’t succumbed to “gridlock.”

“Why do they have a Main Street environment that is many times nicer than Gainesville’s?” asks Walter Kulash, the Orland-based traffic analyst who worked on Gainesville’s University Avenue study. “Why do they have cafes and bookshops and coffee shops and a wonderfully restored hotel and even aesthetically pleasing burger places in a market one-fifth the size of Gainesville on a street that is a major thoroughfare?

Good questions. But you might as well ask: Why Hollywood and not Gainesville? Why Delray and not Gainesville? Why Stuart and Fort Pierce and West Palm Beach and not Gainesville?

None of those cities are “exactly like” Gainesville. But all share our traffic problems to one degree or another (no one can seriously argue that traffic in Gainesville is worse than that in West Palm Beach, where they have made traffic calming a science), and all have managed to revive their core commercial areas despite their traffic problems.

The answer is depressing. Because we are willing to settle for less in Gainesville. Instead of a “signature” street that links our premier university with our isolated downtown, we are willing to live with a decaying urban thoroughfare engineered to interstate-highway standards for our motoring convenience.

So we can drive through that blighted strip as quickly as possible. And, honestly, it doesn’t look quite so bad when you’re driving fast. As Ed Braddy told his fellow commissioners the other evening, “I just drove here on University Avenue, and I thought the sidewalks looked fine. They looked plenty wide, and nobody was on them.”

Now there’s a big surprise.

“It’s very difficult to get anything done in a university town,” Ramon Trias, the Fort Pierce planning director who is recreating a Mediterranean village in the heart of one of Florida’s most unattractive cities, told me. “The people are all very bright, and they all love to argue about everything.”

To the extent that University Avenue is a reflection of Gainesville’s values, it reflects very badly indeed on our values. Because the truth is that while we all like to brag about Gainesville, it’s not a particularly attractive city in many respects. That’s especially true of our so-called “built environment,” our public spaces like University Avenue.

“I think to an extent, the problem is that we don’t really think of ourselves as an urban area,” says Ruth Steiner, professor of urban and regional planning at UF. “We tend to think of ourselves as a suburban community.”

Like South Florida

And here’s a nice bit of irony: For the quarter century I’ve been living in Gainesville, the most oft-heard rallying cry has been “We don’t want to be like South Florida.”

Well, guess what? A lot of folks in South Florida have decided that they don’t want to be like South Florida either, and they’re doing something about it.

They’ve started by taking back their old downtowns from the insidious auto-erotic culture that turned them into ghost towns in the first place.

“We’ve been sprawl-driven for 50 years, and while that may be nice for cars, it doesn’t do a lot for people,” said Tom Flemming, who was Main Street coordinator for Delray Beach when it underwent an astonishing downtown revival. “The wide, fast, straight roadway is the death-knell of urban life. You have to decide whether you want to be a through street or a destination street. If you choose to be a through street, you have to realize that you will always have a slum on either side of it, because that’s the best you can have.”

I wonder if we’re capable of learning from South Florida’s successes as well as its mistakes? My old hometown of Hollywood could teach us a thing or two about what it means to have a “signature” street that defines it’s community’s values and aspirations.

Not to mention how to keep fuel-injected teen-agers from using downtown as a drag strip.


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