DIGITAL WORLD REQUIRES DIFFERENT ROAD DESIGNS: From Car-Centric Functions to Neighborhood Characteristics

Today’s digital technologies are rapidly changing how the public right of way – our car-travel corridors – are used. The Federal Highway Administration’s traditional functional distinctions – highway, arterial, feeder, collector, etc. -- are getting fuzzier. Waze is sending traffic through back streets instead of down clogged arterials, a congestion-spreading tactic that will happen regularly as new development adds tens of thousands of additional daily car trips to the metro area.  Platformed-based car sharing (aka Transportation Network Companies or TNCs) are enticing urbanites to leave their own vehicle at home but double parking everywhere for pick-ups and drop-offs (often blocking bicycle lanes), and increasing congestion partly because “much of the time, they are driving around empty, waiting for a fare.”  Amazon and the other on-line stores are promising faster and cheaper home delivery, potentially sending growing numbers of vehicles to previously low-traffic neighborhoods. And the faster-than-anyone-anticipated roll-out of driverless cars, delivery vans, and trucks – starting with the driver-assisting technologies already appearing in high end vehicles – threatens to totally swamp the roads with endlessly moving (fossil fuel-consuming and air/water/noise polluting) private machines.

The digital transformation of everything has also brought an increase in distracted driving (and more visible but less dangerous distracted walking and bicycling) leading to increases in fatalities of vulnerable road users (mostly young kids and seniors), maintenance workers, EMTs, and even police.  The problem comes from both the difficulty of pausing our addictive cellphone use when we drive alone and the increased presence of screens and entertainment options built into the car itself.  (In one study, an app showed that college students checked their phones an average of 60 times a time, for three to four minutes each time, for a total of 220 minutes -- three and two-thirds hours -- a day.  Another study found young adults having 85 sessions for an average daily total of nearly five hours.)

All of which is in contrast to the growing demand in both cities and suburbs for walkable/bikeable, green, and quiet mixed-use neighborhoods. How can we move from our unwanted reality to the desired future? The still-unknown solution will probably require a new type of context-sensitive design that incorporates placemaking as much as mobility. This will only happen if we reclaim the land we collectively own but reserve for motorized traffic and demand that it be used for a broader range of human activity. And this requires bold political vision and leadership able to win voters to the economic and social value of investing our tax dollars in a significant rebuilding of our infrastructure. The people-oriented streets that will replace our current car-oriented roads will have extremely aggressive traffic calming and more meaningful complete streets multi-modalism. The design process will increase the amount of local choice even at the cost of confusion-avoiding standardization. And we all will have to continue changing our already-changing emotions about being behind the wheel.



The bad news is that none of these digital-age problems are going to go away by themselves.  There will be lots of pious statements about congestion and safety, but the painful reality is that our growing population’s increasing concentration in urban areas, the increasing number of cars families own, the still-sprawling distances between residences and jobs or shopping locations, our unsophistication about parking policies, the undesirability of knocking down homes to build more roads, the conservative opposition to raise taxes and invest in mass transit – all mean that congestion will get worse in the immediate future and much worse after that unless something is done. 

In addition, almost all these disruptive technologies are being developed by private firms that fiercely defend their intellectual property rights from public scrutiny.  In the past, government labs and contracts developed not only the basic science but also the first iterations of new industrial systems giving policy-makers and the public a certain amount of (admittedly, too often ignored) advanced notice about what was coming down the pike.  Lack of awareness leaves policy-makers always behind, giving some legitimacy to the anti-government rants and law-breaking of entrepreneurial libertarians such as Uber’s self-described “pirate” CEO.



For nearly a century, roads have been described and classified according to their car-traffic-based function:  limited access highways, arterials, feeders, collectors, primary, secondary, etc.  The “criteria include not only the physical attributes of the road but also efficiency of travel, number of access points, speed limits, route spacing, actual usage, and continuity.”  (Although various governmental and non-governmental have created differently worded lists, the hierarchy defined by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is almost always the starting point.)  And, to some extent, the definition of something shapes its production. 

What if the default definition of a road was multi-modal?  Complete Streets is the idea that streets should be designed to serve the needs of every user of every ability using every mode.  Whether in new construction or restriping, the layout should be “designed from the outside in” meaning that pedestrian, bicycle, and transit needs are considered before car and truck lanes – with compromises based on a commitment to equally share any necessary sacrifices of space.  The good news is that pedestrian and, in an even bigger break with history, bike facilities are included on many roads.  But, unfortunately, in practice this often turns out to mean squeezing sidewalks and bike lanes into whatever space is left over after projected traffic volumes are satiated.



What if the defining characteristic of a road was changed to its physical surrounding, the land-use patterns of the adjacent space?  Context-sensitive road design was supposed to do exactly that.  MassDOT was, in fact, a national leader in adopting this approach.  And Boston’s Complete Streets Guidelines went a step further, defining the context as the human activity in the surrounding area.  The City’s alternative street categories include Downtown (Commercial, Mixed Use) and Neighborhood (Main Street, Connector, Residential) types as well as Boulevards, Parkways, Shared Streets, and Industrial Roads.  For example, about Neighborhood Mainstreets the documents say, “Because these streets are a meeting ground for residents, they should be designed to support gatherings and community events such as farmers’ markets, festivals, and local communi­ty events.” 

Boston’s language should have moved road design a long way from a dominating focus on moving cars.  But, unfortunately, in practice the city’s engineers and consultants have still seen their job as facilitating mobility through roads.  Again, the resulting streets are much more multi-modal and safer than in the past.  But they are not treated as “place making” opportunities, as a way to use public land to facilitate a broad range of community needs, concerns, and hopes.  Making it all more complicated is the tension between local vision and regional needs, with the former typically focused on quality of life and the later focused on reducing commuter congestion – visibly played out through contentious redesign efforts in Sullivan Square/Rutherford Avenue, McGrath Highway, Casey Overpass, and other grounding efforts.



Another problem comes from the enormous pressure on public agencies to have uniform standards.  It makes sense to not have to re-invent the wheel for every decision, nor is it cost-effective to treat every situation as unique.  But it’s not just about efficiency.  Our society does not trust government to be impartial and honest, so we’ve forced them to develop and demand that they follow (with political penalties if someone is found to deviate) strict decision-making criteria. 

Despite engineers’ self-image as “problem solvers” the scope of their creativity in road design is extremely narrow – and their professional culture often narrows it even more, often refusing to incorporate proven ideas that haven’t yet finished going through the enormously lengthy (and conservative) national standards bodies’ approval process.  There was an engineer in the New England Regional office of the Federal Highway Administration who was rumored to have refused to approve the use of Federal funds for nearly every innovation suggested by the region’s state Departments of Transportation.  (Would you over-rule your top expert who says “this doesn’t meet approved standards and if anyone ever gets hurt it will be your fault”?)  Within groups such as the Institute of Transportation Engineers, traditionally an organization for people who design the operational functionality of transportation systems, to pull in a broader range of people.   But before things get designed, we have to revise what we want them to accomplish;  what is needed is a broader vision of the purpose and values that transportation systems should serve.



The digital transformation of our street uses is not going to go away.  Every street is now a potential traffic route.  Every intersection, bridge, lane merge, and construction site is now a potential bottle neck.  Every parking spot contested territory.  But the current tools and strategies being used to prepare our streets for the future don’t seem to be adequate for the challenge.  Obviously, if there was a simple answer someone would be already doing it.  But perhaps it is possible to begin suggesting five elements that will have to be part of the policy and operational mix.   Of course, all of this rashly assumes a vast expansion of properly funded well-run public transit options and opportunities without which we’re all going to spend our days in gridlock no matter what we do with our roads.


1)   Set New Default Visions; Use Congestion  

We have to codify and institutionalize a different way of thinking about road corridors.  A good starting point is work through Complete Streets to revive and radically deepen the context-sensitive framework.  The goal is to make local activity and place-making have equal – perhaps even greater -- importance to “moving through” in right-of-way uses and design.   This means that road projects are actually community development projects in the broadest sense, going beyond business growth to social services, environment, job access, and quality of life issues.  First, there should be a process of deciding what should be done with the space, what kind of physical environment is wanted.  Transportation should be fit into the space that is left over, at least as a starting point.

Of course, traffic-defined major roads for intercity travel are inevitable at least until we have a much, much better rail and mass transit system.  And it is unlikely that existing highways and the biggest arterials inside cities will be torn down in the near future, although removal and down-sizing should be the preferred option rather than rebuilding when they reach their safe-use life-span limits.  (In the remaining roads, the 2-person requirement for High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes should be boosted to 3-people to encourage better sharing of Autonomous Vehicles.) But the rest of the road system should be seen through the lens of local needs and desires – with the vision extending far beyond mobility – as suggested in the Boston description of Neighborhood Main Streets.  In other words, Transportation Departments should no longer be the sole designer or owner of roads.

We also need a new attitude about congestion. The traditional attitude is that traffic jams are bad – a waste of time and money, a cause of pollution, a public nuisance – and should be “solved” through road expansion.  But if we understand that it’s not going away so matter what we do and will unavoidably get worse in many places, then perhaps we can change our approach.  There are some tight spots, those that cause a disproportionate number of crashes, whose dangerousness needs to be reduced.  But what about the rest?  Smart municipalities are beginning to understand that strategically located traffic aggravations can help persuade people to use an alternative.  Cambridge, for example, actually benefits from the difficulty of driving past the Alewife Red Line station (although the positive effect is undermined by the inability of drivers to find a parking place to leave their car when they take the T.)  The awkwardness of getting off the MassPike in Allston then going over the bridge to Cambridge can also be seen as a strategic benefit, creating pressure for Harvard and others to find alternative ways to connect the Allston and Kenmore employment centers.


2)   Reduce Car Speeds; Improve Parking

Traffic calming needs to be take center stage in street designs.  To the extent that roads will continue to be mobility corridors – and they will need to serve that function (among others) until we master low-cost tunneling or teleportation – we need to make sure that cars (or other vehicles: we’re about the see an explosion of new types from motorcycle cars to e-bikes to AVs) are unable to comfortably go faster than our desired target speed.  Translation: speed limits should no longer be set by traffic Level of Service clearance rates, nor by the traditional 85% design speed process that takes current driver behaviors as the starting point.  This means that road designers will have to change how they incorporate a margin of safety for driver error into their roads – the traditional approach is to build roads capable of illegally fast speeds to avoid letting racers die.  Not surprisingly, people drive as fast as the road design allows them to. 

Instead, roads will have to incorporate traffic calming techniques to make it very uncomfortable to driver faster than the posted speed, at some level, perhaps even damaging to the car!   This is a structural change – we know that signs and paint have a limited effect on driver behavior.  The road itself is what tells people how fast to go, and traffic calming is what gets the road to say what we want it to – from changes in the shape and outline of the pavement up to and including block-the-box and red-light violation cameras.  In addition – and probably the most immediately do-able strategy for most locations – we need to push for the creation and rapid expansion of each city’s residential “neighborway”, “slow street”, “slow zone”, “pedestrian priority”, and /or “bicycle boulevard” programs through which certain stretches of road are prioritized for non-motorized activity (including travel, socializing, and play) and cars are allowed but only if moving at no more than 10 mph with strict responsibility for their effect on everyone else.

We also have to rethink our use of curb space.  The efficiency-improvement caused by “demand-sensitive” parking pricing has been repeated proven.  We now have to add tweaks to deal with the explosion of hire-able private vehicles through TNCs – which will get hugely worse as driverless cars and delivery trucks roll out.  Curb-access fees, varying according to locational context, time of day, and other factors may be part of the solution.  Expanding the number of fee-for-use loading spots, but limiting their use to non-busy hours may be another component.  The danger is making Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV) vehicles even more attractive than transit, incentivizing those with money to abandon the high-public value subway-trolley-bus system and becoming even more hostile to the use of road space for transit and bicycles.


3)   Data and Technology

Government, too, needs to be up-to-speed with new digital opportunities.   The full “smart city” portfolio is overhyped snake-oil pedaled by the high-tech vendors.  But a vast increase in the number of traffic sensors, the digital connection of traffic lights and walk signals, and real-time central controls are worthy projects.  As is passing laws requiring transportation businesses to share their traffic flow and user data.  Where and when are passengers being picked up and dropped off?  How long does it take to get down various road segments?  Currently, almost all this information is treated as proprietary trade secrets, but there is no reason that governments can’t demand it’s real-time availability if stripped of personally-identifying markers, generalized by block (or some other geographic area) instead of address, and aggregated with other data-sources.   This will be even more important if/when driverless trucks, vans, and cars hit the road – every one of which should be required to feed data into a common pool.

In addition, the government can take the lead in creating open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that allow on-board computers to talk to each other.  Vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity can turn entire cities into digital networks, improving safety and services for everyone.  (Yes, there is a privacy risk in all this, but anyone who doesn’t understand that every detail of our life is already knowable is at even greater risk. We will only be able to reclaim any portion of our privacy by acknowledging it’s loss -- and finding ways to benefit from the situation.)


4)   Rebalance uniformity and flexibility

Fourth, reset our balance between uniformity and flexibility.  We need to rethink the balance between regional mobility needs and local quality of life as well as the tension between standardized uniformity and context-sensitive flexibility.  Local NIMBYism is an ingrained part of our society – “it’s a good idea, this is just the wrong place/time/way to do it.” Abutter push-back, like advocacy group input, often makes designs better. But when should a critique turn into a veto, and how do we prevent allowing the ability to exercise that opposition to continue being a privilege of wealth, power, or skin color?  At some level, the general welfare must overrule local preference and even legitimizes (properly compensated and mitigated) local harm. But not always.

Similarly, we are going to need to find ways to allow government to become more customer friendly, more flexible, more able to tailor projects and programs to the particular needs of different groups. How can we use technology and policy to allow us to both trust the integrity of public agency staff and actions and give them the authority to vary their work in different places or with different groups?  In many cases, equity is not the result of treating everyone the same regardless of their differing circumstances, resources, or histories – equal treatment of people with different starting points simply perpetuates inequity.  But we’ve created so many straight-jacket, one-size-fits-all strictures exactly because past flexibility so often led to disparities and corruption. 

This two-level issue is a hard one – there is no correct answer except that the all-or-nothing extremes are probably bad.  We need a broad and inclusive discussion to come to a contemporary consensus, if not nationally at least in each state.


5) Culture Change  

It wasn’t long ago that drunk driving was cool.  MADD -- Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the power behind the “designated driver” campaign – was able to redefine it as irresponsibility if not murder.  We need AAA or Better World Club or some other mass membership group to take the lead in redefining distracted driving in the same way.   People should feel guilty any time they look down at their phone while driving a car.  However, because those increasingly powerful hand computers are likely to get even more integrated into our lives in future years, we also need to pressure car manufacturers (and then policy-makers) to improve the blue-tooth-style, voice interactive capabilities of in-car technology (and their connections to our phones), so that people don’t have to take their eyes off the road and that the most attention-requiring applications simply won’t run when the car is moving.  (Yes, this will allow some level of continued distraction, but hopefully a lot less.)

We can wait for the digital world to overwhelm us like a ransom virus.  Or we can get ahead of the inevitable problems.  Only this time the payment for inaction will be people’s lives.


Thanks to Robin Chase, Jeff Rosenblum, and Jason DeGray for feedback on earlier drafts.


Related previous blogs:

> TOWARDS A NEW HIERARCHY OF ROAD DESIGNS: From Traffic Volume to Human Function

> REDEFINING TRANSPORTATION:  From Moving Vehicles to Place-Making


> PEOPLE PRIORITY STREETS:  Neighborways, Slow Streets, and Safety Zones

> IF YOU BUILD IT THEY COME: But What Happens When You Take It Away?


> SMART CITIES, POWER POLITICS, & QUALITY OF LIFE:  Technology and What It’s Used For

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