Congress has new guide for switch to livable, high-performance street networks, experts testify at House hearing

U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio chaired a timely hearing of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee today.

Just a week or so ago, top academic researchers Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero generated plenty of online buzz with two findings from their meta-analysis of 50 other studies on "travel and the built environment" published in JAPA, the Journal of the American Planning Association. The first was touted by NRDC Smart Growth Director Kaid Benfield in a posting at and boils down to this: If your goal is reducing driving and greenhouse gas impacts, location matters most. Specifically, locations that are close to important destinations — employment centers, schools and universities, shopping and cultural districts — enable residents to live on far less driving.

The second newsmaking finding was that the factor most associated with increased walking and better health outcomes is a metric that urbanists have been giving more and more attention — a high concentration of street intersections. Sure, that may sounds wonky but as this image from the Ewing/Cervero report demonstrates, more intersections per square mile (Venice and to some extent downtown LA) rather than fewer intersections (Irvine, California) correspond with smaller blocks and more options that pedestrians can exercise in finding the shortest and most direct route to reach their destinations. It makes walking more natural, especially where streets have welcoming sidewalks and rows of shops, townhomes and other buildings that relate to pedestrians at a human-scale. (Read Laurence Aurbach's posting on this aspect of the recent JAPA report.)

Rep. DeFazio's subcommittee hearing today was timely because it was dedicated to the Federal government's role in promoting "context-sensitive" transportation solutions. Although that technical term has lacked rigor over the years — being applied to efforts like bas-relief murals on urban highway support columns to celebrate the achievements of the communities displaced by the highway — "CSS" has become a vehicle for delivering transportation solutions designed around the needs of people in their neighborhoods, not just the needs of automobiles. When U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood touts his vision for transportation systems that "allow Americans to get to work, school, the doctor, the grocery store, or the park without being required to get into a car" — including walkable street networks with lots of intersections — engineers will use "context-sensitive solutions to deliver them.

Congressman DeFazio recognizes that current federal transportation programs favor big highways at the expense of true context-sensitive designs and he's looking for ways to change that. CNU CEO John Norquist submitted written testimony that included suggestions for policy mechanisms Congress could use to promote features such as intersection density. And Hal Kassoff, a senior vice-president at the engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff and former Maryland Highway Administrator, used his testimony to advise Congress to consult a fine new roadmap for delivering livable streets, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context-Sensitive Approach, which he described as "a remarkable document that was prepared through a unique partnership of transportation engineers and urban planners representing ITE [the Institute of Transportation Engineers] and the Congress for the New Urbanism, supported by FHWA and EPA."

Testified Kassoff:

Traditionally, these groups have had different philosophies, different goals and expectations, and even different languages to describe the same things. After nearly a decade of determined effort to work cooperatively at both the policy and technical levels, the group produced what is already being viewed as a landmark publication...

The recommended practice is a triumph not only in perseverance but in its range of coverage from philosophical to practical. It gets right down into the details — widths of sidewalks, travel lanes, target speeds for different types of thoroughfares — and yet it does so in a way that encourages the careful consideration of the context from a community and a land-use as well as transportation perspective.

Kassoff testified that ITE would welcome action at the federal level that would encourage "awareness and application" of the new ITE-CNU guide, but not as a mandate, which he said would likely lead to too many communities meeting watered-down minimum standards rather than embracing the best practices in the guide. Watch a recording of the hearing, including Kassoff's testimony (starting at around the 18 minute mark).
Hal Kasoff testifying at Highways and Transit Subcommittee Hearing
Also worth finding is testimony from Lynn Peterson, Chair of the Clackamas (Oregon) County Board of County Commissioners and a former Wisconsin DOT official, who argued that clear federal direction and policy requirements are necessary to enable a shift to more context-sensitive design. She also provides revealing anecdotes about how policy makers in the Portland area opted to go "outside the federal system" in order to implement an innovative plan to connect a highway and destination-rich area with a well-connected street network rather than another big highway. Watch for her comments on these issues around the 27-minute mark.


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