Cities and towns have been leading the charge for safer streets, incorporating design elements like protected bike lanes and sidewalk extensions. But design guidance from state highway officials often gets in the way when agencies don’t have the technical or political heft to deviate from “the rules” that have long held sway in the field of street engineering. Last night, a panel of experts discussed how progressive best practices can be codified and included in the guidelines that shape decisions about street design across the nation.
The panel at the AIA-NY Center for Architecture, sponsored by the Congress for the New Urbanism’s New York chapter and moderated by NYC DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt, featured David Vega-Barachowitz of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Laura MacNeil of Sam Schwartz Engineering, and Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut civil engineering professor.
“You can’t ignore the triumvirate of the Green Book, the Highway Manual, and the MUTCD,” Vega-Barachowitz said, listing the dominant street design guidelines produced by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and the Federal Highway Administration. These documents, which many transportation engineers rely upon when making decisions, are often faulted for emphasizing motor traffic throughput instead of creating safe, pleasant places that serve everyone who uses the street.
In recent years, forward-thinking planners and engineers have started to produce a new generation of design guidance. In 2006, Garrick worked with CNU and the Institute of Transportation Engineers to produce a set of standards that would be compatible with the existing highway-focused guidance while still meeting the needs of town centers and urban areas.
The engineers and planners who worked on the project first met in 2005. ”I’ll never forget that meeting. There was a lot of shouting,” Garrick said. “We didn’t even have the same language to discuss what we needed to discuss.” Despite the initial divisions, the end product has been used by many engineers who trust ITE’s imprimatur.
But this “context-sensitive” approach has its limitations. “A lot of times that just means slap down trees in the median, as opposed to reallocate space,” Vega-Barachowitz said.