Get More (Much More) From Those Road Dollars, Norquist Advises Congress

When a key House subcommittee delved into an important topic this week — how federal transportation programs can support "context-sensitive solutions" designed around the full range of needs of people and their neighborhoods, rather than just the needs of their automobiles — CNU's John Norquist submitted written testimony.

The criteria driving most federal transportation spending force government to view projects extremely narrowly, advised Norquist. They’re judged on their ability to reduce automobile congestion (usually by adding highway capacity). Ignored are the criteria that measure how the right investments do so much more — from creating settings for enduring economic activity to providing welcoming public space that supports vibrant civic life and helping people live more active and healthy lives.

Well-designed urban infrastructure achieves high performance across a range of metrics covering mobility, economics, quality of life and public health. And it does it affordably in big cities, walkable suburbs and small towns. And Norquist congratulated Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and other members of the subcommittee he chairs, the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, for their strong interest in reforming federal programs to support them.

As transportation engineer Hal Kasoff did in representing the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) in oral testimony, Norquist pointed the members of Congress to a trusted new guide to this “context-sensitive” approach, the recently released guide Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context-Sensitive Approach — the result of a breakthrough partnership of CNU and ITE. Images like this one and other instructions in the document detail not only street characteristics such as lane width and corner geometry but also the intricate relationship between street and setting, going well beyond the basic coverage of "shoulder" and "roadside" in conventional guides.

Near the conclusion of his comments, Norquist also recommended statutory changes the Feds could use to move the focus from addressing auto congestion by widening individual streets to improving overall network performance through enhanced connectivity. As Norquist's proposal indicates, a key measure of street connectivity is intersection density — a metric that not only is incorporated as a green standard in LEED for Neighborhood Development but got a visibility boost in a major planning study by Reid Ewing and Robert Cervero that concluded that the concentration of intersections was the most important factor in determining how much walking people do.

Here is the entire submitted testimony:

U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Highways and Transit

Using Practical Design and a Context-Sensitive Solutions Approach in Developing Surface Transportation Projects
Testimony of John Norquist, President and CEO

June 10, 2010

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, thank you for providing me with the opportunity to testify on behalf of the Congress for the New Urbanism (

I appreciate the opportunity to present ideas for a new more effective and efficient approach to federal investment in urban thoroughfares. With federal transportation funds scarce and with many backlogged projects, including some very expensive ones, the time is right to look at ways to maximize our return on limited investment dollars.

We need to ask ourselves as community leaders and citizens the following questions:

• Are we adding value to the US, state and local economies with our investments in the National Highway System?
• Is the goal of reducing congestion the right goal in urban contexts or should other benefits be sought when the US government devotes money to improving urban thoroughfares?

Thoroughfares and Context Sensitive Solutions
Traditionally through thousands of years of human settlement, urban streets have performed multiple functions. Mobility was one, but economic and social functions were important as well. Retail transactions and social interaction have long occurred along main streets and other urban thoroughfares. It is only in the twentieth century that streets were designed to separate the mobility function from the economic and social functions. To help transportation designers learn again to create livable streets that excel at all three of these integrated functions, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has worked closely with the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) to produce a manual called “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: a Context Sensitive Approach.”

Context-Sensitive Solutions (CSS) are generally defined as a process for community leaders and other stakeholders to engage in transportation design approaches that achieve multiple objectives, such as accommodating the needs of a community’s businesses, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, while preserving a community’s history, aesthetics and safety. CSS can be used during the planning process for large and small communities. Context-Sensitive Design uses these approaches in the design of a community.

To this general approach, the CNU-ITE guide for designing walkable thoroughfares adds professional rigor. Well-defined metrics concerning issues such as street widths, the configuration of corners (rounded corners lead to faster turns while squared corners yield slower turning and are friendlier to pedestrians) and the positioning of buildings along the street edge help create high-performance streets that support valuable, sustainable neighborhood development. These design metrics also vary in prescribed ways to match urban context ranging from small towns to garden suburbs and dense urban cores.

This enhanced version of Context Sensitive Design should be useful in further defining the useful concept of Practical Design, utilized by you, Chairman DeFazio, Chairman Oberstar and others on this committee. In fact, the “PRACTICAL DESIGN STANDARDS” addressed in the House version of the Transportation Reauthorization bill offers statutory guidance on standards that in many ways correspond with CSS. For example, the legislation encourages adoption of “comprehensive street design policies…, the development and dissemination of information or best practices relating to comprehensive street design policies and principles…, and practical design standards to States, metropolitan planning organizations, and other appropriate governmental entities….” Many communities will benefit by adopting CSS, or developing similar “Practical Design” standards. Semantics are less important than encouraging large and small cities to consider multiple factors to retain the character of their communities, while improving movement, business and safety. For this reason, I would like to thank the Committee for taking the initiative of encouraging local transportation planning.

About CNU
Founded in 1993, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is a nonprofit membership organization comprised of more than 2700 architects, urban planners, developers, engineers, and public officials. CNU is the leading organization promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.

For nearly twenty years, CNU members have used the principles in CNU's Charter to promote the hallmarks of New Urbanism, including:

• Livable streets arranged in compact, walkable blocks.
• A range of housing choices to serve people of diverse ages and income levels.
• Schools, stores and other nearby destinations reachable by walking, bicycling or transit service.
• An affirming, human-scaled public realm where appropriately designed buildings define and enliven streets and other public spaces.

Established by co-founders Andres Duany, Peter Calthorpe, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides and Dan Solomon and supported today by distinguished board members and other thought-leaders from the worlds of urban design, development and government policy, CNU works to deliver these hallmarks to communities across North America and overseas on multiple scales. Settings where new urbanists are active include both emerging growth areas and brownfields, suburbs and small towns where New Urbanism can either reinforce the character of existing walkable areas or help to "retrofit" automobile-oriented malls and office parks to become walkable communities. The principles of New Urbanism are also central to making whole regions more livable, coherent and sustainable. With a history of forming productive alliances, CNU has been at the forefront of efforts to reform how we design and build communities and their infrastructure.

Our partners have included:
• US Department of Housing and Urban Development on Hope VI
• US Environmental Protection Agency on Smart Growth
• Institute of Transportation Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration on the new guide for Context-Sensitive Urban Thoroughfares
• A lead partner with Natural Resources Defense Council and the US Green Building Council in creating the nation’s first rating system for green neighborhoods, the newly released LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND)
• Our founding Charter is a source for the Sustainable Communities partnership of the HUD, EPA and the US Department of Transportation.

CNU's 2010 Congress was developed with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control on the theme of “New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places,” reflecting growing scientific evidence that walkable neighborhoods enjoy significant health advantages over automobile dominated sprawl.

Removing Barriers to Creating Great Streets
Interconnected street systems are the basic building component of cities and towns. Where and how to construct major urban thoroughfares is a decisive factor in the shape and character of the urban space. A design must balance the interests of travelers, businesspeople, neighbors and community stakeholders. With many competing interests, arriving at mutually agreeable and functional solutions can be a challenge.

Without collaboration and forethought, a singular interest can trump other interests producing a less than ideal space. For example, communities solely built to facilitate vehicle movement can place pedestrians at risk, blight the surrounding built environment and destroy local community character.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has worked closely with the Institute of Transportation Engineers to produce “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: a Context Sensitive Approach” (available for free download at The guide demonstrates how context-sensitive design principles and techniques may be applied where community objectives support New Urbanism and smart growth. After years of concern for vehicle movement dominating street design, this manual is the first guide for engineers that balances the automobile interest with other community needs.

The manual is also intended for elected officials, developers, and citizens concerned about road design and its effects. With the manual emphasizing a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach, CNU and ITE’s goal is to educate practitioners to create and preserve urban spaces that:
• Balance safety, mobility, community and environmental goals
• Involve the public and stakeholders early and continuously
• Use an interdisciplinary design team approach
• Address all modes of travel
• Apply flexibility inherent in design standards and guidelines, and
• Incorporate aesthetics.

Research shows that besides excelling at meeting mobility goals, networks of context-sensitive major streets such as avenues and boulevards achieve far greater traffic safety than the high-volume arterial streets that prevail in most conventional transportation design. Dr. Eric Dumbaugh, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University, has recently completed research that shows the following safety differences:
• Arterial roads are associated with increased crash risks for all users, regardless of mode, e.g.,
o 14% increase in multiple-vehicle crashes,
o 10% increase in pedestrian crashes, and
o 8.4% increase in bicyclist crashes.

• Per vehicle mile traveled, livable context-sensitive streets reported
o 40% fewer mid-block crashes than roadway averages, and
o 67% fewer roadside crashes than roadway averages.

The CNU and ITE manual is unique in that it brought together transportation engineers, planners, architects and government officials to create and offer a new coordinated approach to urban design while ensuring that local roads meet transportation engineering and safety requirements. For example, the manual encourages the use of interconnected street grids to improve traffic flow while facilitating traffic distribution and flow in major business districts and corridors. It offers guidance for the use of the boulevard, the avenue, and the street to establish community development priorities. It establishes guidelines for residential neighborhoods, to reduce travel distances to retail and employment corridors and to allow fire and emergency vehicles to move safely and effectively through neighborhoods. Finally, the manual addresses the dimensions of main streets to emphasize safer speeds, parking needs, and crosswalks. We urge this committee to consider a reference to “Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: a Context Sensitive Approach” as part of the Transportation Reauthorization so that public officials, engineers, planners and other stakeholders consider these options as they work to improve their communities.

Accomplishments to Date
After identifying major urban thoroughfare design as a decisive issue in place making within communities, CNU partnered with ITE to find a workable solution, and have since:
• Solicited and received sponsorship from the Environmental Protection Agency and The Federal Highway Administration
• Developed a new standard for recommended practice that describes the importance of integrating Context Sensitive Solutions in urban highway and road projects; how these principles can be used in transportation planning and project development processes; and outlines specific guidelines on thoroughfare cross section and intersection design
• Held a series of workshops across the country to acquaint local officials with the new manual and the principles of context-sensitive design. These workshops have been extremely popular, with attendance requests at or above capacity.
• Worked with fire professionals and other emergency responders to demonstrate how well connected street networks improve response time and efficiency.

Next Steps
Under current Federal law, 23 USC 103(b)(6)(C), the National Highway System funds can be spent on a non-NHS highway if:
• The other road is a federal-aid highway
• It is in the same corridor as a fully access-controlled NHS highway
• The project on the non-NHS highway improves level of service on the NHS access controlled highway
• The project is more cost-effective than working on the NHS highway
• The project on the non-NHS highway improves level of service on the NHS access-controlled highway, or
• The project is more cost-effective than working on the NHS highway.

CNU suggests that 23 USC 103(b)(6)(C) be amended to allow expenditure on streets that are not federal aid highways, but meet the other conditions.

This would allow addition of parallel through-streets that could, if better connected, relieve traffic on main NHS routes by giving travelers additional route choices.

CNU also requests that in corridors in urban contexts, defined as communities with intersection density of 90 intersections per square mile or greater, that the NHS allow federal funds to be expended on street network enhancement.

By allowing federal transportation funds to be used for local road projects, we can add value to large cities and small communities alike by improving access to business corridors, and multi-modal transportation, while improving pedestrian access and safety. I urge the Committee to consider this position as you work to complete the next major Transportation Reauthorization.

I thank you Mr. Chairman for the opportunity to testify.


Fed Road Policy

I met with staff from Congressman Peter Defazio's and Jim Oberstar's offices last week. They are very interested in changing Federal road funding to more easily allow funding for street improvements that improve traffic distribution near Federal system right of ways. They realize many benefits would result from increasing connectivity on side streets which can help keep local trips off major thoroughfares while also increasing walkability and improving emergency vehicle service.


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