Public demand for walkable neighborhoods, towns and cities is often thwarted by auto-dominated guidelines that force anyone designing streets to favor the car over pedestrians, cyclists and transit. A simple but powerful change is proposed in this petition: update the FHWA Functional Classification System by defining separate Urban, Suburban and Rural Area Types. New and more specific design guidance could then transform streets and make America's places more safe, walkable and livable.
THE FHWA Functional Classification system divides the United States into two parts: Rural and Urbanized. These two categories determine the standards by which American roads are built. Streets in walkable cities, towns and neighborhoods are governed by the same standards as suburban arterials and collector roads, with the result that streets in our walkable neighborhoods still prioritize traffic flow rather than walkability. Even new multi-modal streets usually have a clear priority as built: the car comes first, some space is allocated to bicycle and transit throughput, and the pedestrian is still by the side of the road, frequently no better off than before.
The solution to this problem should begin with a new three-part Area Type classification, namely Rural, Suburban and Urban. In this new system, Rural areas would remain where they are now, and most of the area called Urbanized would be reclassified as Suburban. Cities, towns and neighborhoods that now have networks of walkable streets, would be reclassified as Urban. Areas that want their streets to be walkable in the future could also be classified Urban after key policies are adopted.
The new standards for Urban Areas would be fundamentally different than the current Urbanized standards. Two-way streets, narrow traffic lanes, bicycle sharrows, and fewer turn lanes would be the norm. In large cities, faster urban routes might be designed as broad boulevards and parkways. Small-town residential streets and Main Streets would be similarly transformed, according to their context. All areas should have access to Complete Streets that serve all users and modes of travel.
An important step in this transformation would be to simply design for lower vehicle speeds when they enter urban walkable areas. When it comes to collisions between automobiles and pedestrians, speed kills. When cars go more slowly, drivers see more and have more time to react. Pedestrians naturally feel more comfortable in a human-size space that has not been highlighted by bold striping, large reflective signs, and inexpensive markers. This simple but powerful idea could transform America's streets and make our neighborhoods, cities and towns more walkable.
Victor Dover is an urban designer at Dover, Kohl & Partners, Coral Gables, Florida
John Massengale is an architect and urban designer at Massengale & Co, New York, New York
Rick Hall is a transportation engineer at Hall Planning & Engineering, Tallahassee, Florida