Since the end of World War II, the federal government has maintained a set of land use and economic policies that encourage growth at the edges of cities and discourages walkable and connected neighborhoods. One of the most effective ways it has succeeded in this initiative is to plan, design, and fund 90% of the Interstate Highway System. The interstates began life early in the century, but really came into force with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. Though it took 35 years to complete, much of system around major population centers was to be finished by 1965. (Department of Commerce 1955)
The Interstate system is a 20th century road overlay on a 19th century railroad system with many highways built within the same right away. In fact, the final section of Interstate 80, the first transcontinental freeway, was completed just 50 miles away from the golden spike ceremony of the First Transcontinental Railroad. (Associated Press 1986)
One of the big differences between the, once the largest in the world, extensive intra and intercity railroad network and the new Interstate was a question of integration. (Dutch 1998) Railroads are not seamless with other systems; taking a train means transferring to another system at your destination—be it walking, biking, bus, subway or automobile. It creates a point of interaction with the built environment and with other people. Taking a freeway though you can get in your car in a residential neighborhood and not get out until you reach your destination; freeways are tightly integrated with all other roadways and most likely do not involve system transfers or the need for social interaction.
From a macro-level, especially in, at the time, less developed cities in the South and West, the Interstates were successful in providing safe, quick travel between major metropolitan areas and the backbone of future growth. In their implementation for infrastructurally mature cities though were devastating. The new roads either cut through existing walkable urban neighborhoods, detrimental to the existing quality of life or brought new accessibility to previously cloistered rural areas. The vastly decreased travel time through and to city centers, made the possibility of living farther away a viable option. Within a decade, large portions of rural land adjacent to city centers, and more so, smaller outskirt towns that now had direct connections to metropolitan areas, increased their property values. Real estate investment and housing construction soon followed. (The wide adoption of the mortgage as an instrument of payment worked in conjunction with road construction.)
These new policies were widely successful in their initial role of creating better automobile transportation. Aside from the destruction of mature cities, the Interstates provided a template for all new road design–limited access divided roadways–based on the hegemony of speed and efficiency of the automobile rather than a democracy of neighborhoods, social fabrics, and interactions. The unintended consequences Interstates created however contributed to the degradation of cities largely developed prior to the early to mid-20th century and the creation of largely automobile-dependent urban centers that experienced their main growth afterward. Moreover, the culture of road design they created, once dominate, began to affect public health, the environment, and land use by setting the automobile as the user rather than the pedestrian. (Indeed, the Bureau of Public Roads became the Federal Highway Administration [FHWA] focusing on that very specific type of road and mode–there are no highways for pedestrians or bicycles.)
Some of these consequences were the result of supply and demand and in collusion with other factors, but much of it largely due to governmental policy. The policies have focused on making better transportation systems, rather than making better transportation for people. The success of the new road design, and the codification of it as the de facto standard, was evident in the sustained increase in national vehicle miles traveled it encouraged, which reached a crescendo by 2005, when adjusted for population growth. (Short 2012)
In the past seven years though, for a variety of reasons, we’ve seen a dramatic drop in automobile use–especially among younger populations–down to 1995 levels. (Short 2012) The downward trend has been sustained longer than any decrease before, and began before the rise in gas prices and before the economic downtown. While this has been an overall drop of nearly 9% from the peak, among those under 34 years old, the amount of driving has dropped by 23%. (Davis, et. al. 2012) Clearly there are trends that are pointing to a growing disconnect between existing policy, resource allocation, and behavior of the population.
To better serve our changing population attitudes toward vehicle use, to lower our collective environmental impact, and to decrease our reliance on foreign energy resources, we should develop a new road design standard that is based on not only on collective use by a variety of different modes but contextual in how the standard is implemented. Instead of the Interstate as the model of all road design and everything else derivative of that, this new integrated and contextual road design can serve as the primary arterial through and connector between adjacent cities. Interstates can return to their original concept and become the special case implementation across long distances. As existing arterials are rebuilt, they can be returned to urban streets, providing integrated intracity and intercity travel for all users.
The transportation design and planning field is already underway developing this new design’s technical standard. Called a Complete Street, this standardization codification process has been going since 2003–anticipating the statistical decline in automobile use by two years. By 2005, a cross-interest national coalition of health, aging, transportation and planning agencies and advocates had been created. (Mann 2010) Turning the standards into federal law came close to passage a few years later. More than 200 municipalities in more than 20 states have already passed Complete Streets Ordinances. (National Complete Streets Coalition 2012) However, these often do not concern main arterials and focus on residential level streets. In addition, the projects are disconnected and using a Complete Street is most often an incomplete experience.
The technical details of design and some of the political will is in place for elevating the Complete Street concept to the standard bearer of design. There are also the beginnings of empirical data through Health Impact Assessments, economic assessments, and measuring regional mode shift initiatives that can prove the validity and increase the effectiveness of the implementation of Complete Streets.
One way that Interstates were able to become the dominate design is through their implementation at both the engineering and policy level; engineering standards were developed and then sold to bureaucrats, who in turn could make policy claims. Politicians could buy into the emerging standard because of this agreement among experts, and sell it to the public as economic development, progress and safety. Other industries, like construction and real estate, were able to also find value in the program.
Today, Complete Streets–and other models like it that equalizes or even removes the automobile–is at the verge of selling itself much the same way. Economic development studies have come out in recent years extolling how pedestrian and bicycle path adjacent businesses fare better than others. New York, that most pedestrian of cities, recently claimed that the businesses around the now pedestrian-zoned Times Square saw their revenues rise by nearly 50%. (NYCDOT 2012)
This of course makes sense. Interstates and roads modeled after them are, as their underlying design guide, focused on getting a car from point to point as efficiently as possible. Complete Streets disregard this entirely. This new standard is about creating places for people, roads that are multimodal public spaces for passage. They encourage pause. Maybe not enough to smell the roses, but certainly enough to run in a store for a quick purchase. Complete Streets allows users to recognize the value of where they are in addition getting to where they need to go.
The introduction of the limited access divided highways radically altered the landscape, affected the health of individuals and communities, and created a national dependence on large amounts of energy sources, and economically affected tax bases of urban areas. Evaluating Complete Streets should look at how these could change. Complete Streets are integrative in nature. Evaluating them would require a similar approach. What are the epidemiological changes?
The Interstate system is the creation of a concerted effort from government, labor, industry, banking, and commercial interests. As with many big initiatives, there is a uniting champion with the weight of legitimacy; in this case it was Thomas MacDonald, an engineer/politician and head of the Bureau of Public Roads for 34 years across seven presidents. (Wikipedia)
Complete Streets doesn’t have a central figure like MacDonald. It does have a strong coalition group though in Smart Growth America, the organization that gave the design standard its name. The coalition has created cross partnerships with the FHWA, a key step. Advocacy can only go so far though, both legally and politically. MacDonald had broad powers, formal and implied, and was working from inside. This was a different era, but for Complete Streets to be successful an appointment of advocates to the federal level is needed. And because the new policy is coming from a coalition of groups, framing Complete Streets as an integral part of the mission of environment, public health, senior, children, and disabled agencies and commissions is critical to getting it on the agenda.
Streets and roads are shared public spaces that should welcome and connect all users. Building a shared agenda item across federal level initiatives will mirror the success of the physical implementation.
Associated Press. 1986. “Around The Nation; Transcontinental Road Completed in Utah” The New York Times, August 25, 1986. Accessed Dec 1, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/08/25/us/around-the-nation-transcontinental-road-completed-in-utah.html
Davis, B., Dutzik, T., Baxandall, P., Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People Are Driving Less and What It Means for Transportation Policy. Boston, MA: Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, 2012.
Department of Commerce. Needs of the Highway Systems 1955-1984. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1955.
Doug Short, “CHARTS: The Great Decline Of American Driving,” Business Insider, Nov. 22, 2012, accessed Nov. 22, 2012, http://www.businessinsider.com/population-adjusted-vehicle-miles-2012-11
Dutch, Steven. 1998. “Suburbia” The Consumer Society, Sept 18, 1998. http://www.uwgb.edu/DutchS/WestTech/XMODERN2.HTM
McCann, Barbara. 2010. “Happy Anniversary, Complete Streets!” Complete Streets Blog, Dec 3, 2010. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2010/12/03/happy-anniversary-complete-streets
National Complete Streets Coalition, Complete Streets: Policy Basics. Washington, DC: National Complete Streets Coalition, 2012.
National Complete Streets Coalition. 2012. “Policy Atlas.” Accessed Dec 1, 2012. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets/changing-policy/complete-streets-atlas
National Complete Streets Coalition. 2012. “Understanding the Complete Streets Approach.” Accessed Dec 1, 2012. http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/complete-streets/changing-policy/model-policy
NYCDOT, Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets. New York, NY: New York City Department of Transportation, 2012.
Wikipedia contributors, “Thomas Harris MacDonald,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Harris_MacDonald (accessed Dec 3, 2012).