Live-blog: The high stakes battle of the urban street design manuals

Should cities be consulting highway design manuals for advice on designing city streets? The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) says no, and they’re promoting an alternative manual – the Urban Street Design Guide – which they argue is a better facilitator of pedestrian safety and mobility in urban settings.

It all sounds incredibly boring, but the manuals that city and state transportation planners reach for in deciding how to design city streets carry important political implications for all kinds of issues, including transit and bike ridership, pedestrian safety, public health, air quality, and so much more.

We dove into this debate in a previous post on the “level of service” concept, but the basic shape of the issue is that many of the street engineering and policy orthodoxies of today are derived from the Highway Capacity Manual and AASHTO’s Green Book – documents that are first and foremost highway design manuals, primarily concerned with “the operational efficiency, comfort, safety, and convenience of the motorist” (a direct quote from the Green Book), with the pedestrian experience as kind of an afterthought. Quoth the Green Book:

“Many pedestrians consider themselves outside the law in traffic matters, and in many cases pedestrian regulations are not fully enforced. This makes it difficult to design a facility for efficient pedestrian movements.” 

NACTO believes that the difficulty of designing for pedestrian safety shouldn’t be an excuse not to try, said Corinne Kisner, Program Manager for NACTO’s Designing Cities Initiative, at a panel on the USDG yesterday. Here’s a useful summary of the six basic values and principles underlying their alternative approach:

1. Streets are public spaces. “They should be conceived, analyzed, evaluated, and designed as public spaces, with human-scaled design and amenities. Cities also are recognizing that streets are one of their greatest assets. A tremendous amount of land is covered by streets in our cities. And so streets should be judged by how much they can attract foot traffic and vibrant city life as much as their ability to move vehicles through quickly.”

2. Great streets are great for business. “Streets are an economic asset as much as they are a functional space for mobility. Well-designed streets are generating higher revenues for businesses and homeowners, and a good example of that is NYC’s Measuring the Streets report which came out last year and really dives into the economic impact of well-designed streets” which reported increases in business sales, and decreases in commercial corridor vacancies after protected pedestrian, bicycle, and bus infrastructure were installed.

3. Streets can be changed. “Transportation engineers and planners have the ability to work flexibly within the right of way of a street. Moving curbs, changing alignments, redirecting traffic where necessary.” Worth watching: former NYC DOT head and current NACTO chair Janette Sadik-Khan’s TED talk in defense of activist government in this area.


4. Design for safety.  “In the decade from 2003-2012, more than 47,000 people died while walking on streets in the U.S. And that number is completely unacceptable and we can do much better. Those injuries and deaths on streets in the U.S. can be avoided, and we need to do a better job designing our streets for safety, so all users can interact and cross paths safely.”


5. Streets are ecosystems. “We can’t just treat them as asphalt or concrete that’s covering the ground – we need to incorporate them into the ecosystem of the city. That means green infrastructure and stormwater management, trees that provide shade and climate benefits.”


6. Act now. “This work can be done very quickly. Using low cost materials and temporary interim redesigns can realize the benefits of these projects, while cities then go through the process of doing a capital design for more permanent reconstruction.”


Rina Cutler, Philadelphia’s Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities (MOTU), is NACTO’s Vice President, so these principles probably won’t seem alien to PlanPhilly readers who’ve followed the various Nutter administration and BID streets initiatives over the years.


But it’s helpful to see them spelled out explicitly, because many of the street right-of-way decisions are really political choices disguised as technocratic ones, and the NACTO guidelines give us a language to discuss transportation policy choices in human terms, on the level of values. That’s particularly useful in the context of our upcoming Mayor and Council races, where these issues will be in play.


Below are a few samples of NACTO’s recommendations for various street types. Visit their website for more.

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