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Federal Government Considers Changes in Street Design, Could Makes Roads Safer and more Sustainable

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sets standards for how streets, roadways and highways are designed. The agency is considering comments for possible changes to 13 criteria established in 1985 used to review road designs. Hopefully the FHWA will revise these criteria to make roads safer but also make them more sustainable and more pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly.

The agency requested, and should be considering, comments from the public regarding the revision of its Thirteen Controlling Criteria for Design to update its policies on design criteria for streets. The thirteen criteria are:

  • Speed
  • Lane width
  • Shoulder width
  • Bridge width
  • Structural capacity
  • Horizontal alignment
  • Vertical alignment
  • Grade
  • Stopping sight distance
  • Cross slope
  • Superelevation
  • Vertical clearance
  • Horizontal clearance.

FHWA has a huge impact on road design, because its approval is needed before federal funds can be used to pay for road construction. As it now stands, these 13 criteria control the federal approval of roadway and interstate highway design. Formal design exceptions are needed if any of them aren't met. The goals of the review are to (1) streamline the criteria and their application, and (2) clarify when design exceptions are required.

Recent research that looked at the safety and operational effects of the controlling criteria found them to be outdated, having little influence on the safety and operations of urban roadways (though they worked better for rural roads, freeways and high speed urban/suburban roads).

Potentially, if the right changes are made, it could be a boost for a Complete Streets approach to roadway design, which redefines some basic factors:

  • What a street is intended to do
  • What goals a transportation agency should meet
  • How transportation money is spent.

There is no separation of highways, public transit or walking with Complete Streets; instead, the focus is on creating a transportation system that supports safe and universally inclusive roadway use. If the proper changes to the federal design criteria are made, allowing more flexibility in the design process, building streets that meet the needs of all those using them,-- including bicyclists and pedestrians,-- will be easier.

Changes could make these criteria more like the New Jersey Department of Transportation's Complete Streets policy, which requires that the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit be considered unless there is documentation showing that inclusion of their needs is not justified. Streets that are safer for cyclists and pedestrians are needed. Consider these figures for 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • 743 cyclists were killed and 48,000 injured in vehicle accidents
  • 4,735 pedestrians were killed and 66,000 injured in vehicle accidents.

When pedestrians, cyclists and mass transit are after-thoughts in road and street design, bad things happen.

  • When the focus is on moving as many cars as possible from one point to another as quickly as possible, it not only discourages people from walking, cycling and using mass transit, they are actually in greater danger when they do so.
  • If there is insufficient room for cyclists, they're more likely to be hit by vehicles.
  • If pedestrians and those using bus stops can't cross a street safely, they're more likely to be struck by passing vehicles.

FHWA should use this opportunity to look at road design as more than a way to easily have vehicles go from place to place -- the plan should be to allow people, no matter the method they use, to go easily from place to place, efficiently and safely.

James C. DeZao is an attorney who practices personal injury law in New Jersey. Many of his clients are pedestrians, cyclists and other victims of vehicle accidents. His website is