Can Florida design its way to safety? SSTI meeting highlight

By Chris McCahill

Early this month, SSTI kicked off its Community of Practice meeting in Detroit with a discussion about road safety issues following this year’s surprising spike in traffic deaths. The discussion ranged from issues of alcohol- and cell phone-related crashes to the Tennessee DOT’s innovative program for preventing secondary crashes caused by backed up traffic.

In a presentation to the group, Billy Hattaway, Florida DOT’s District One Secretary, described his agency’s ongoing efforts to improve statewide safety through road design and attention to land use. He emphasized that he prefers to see safety improvements made through engineering solutions, before relying on education and enforcement.

The state’s complete streets initiative is a focal point of its recent efforts. The agency actively incorporates speed management into its roadway design, requires roundabout evaluations for all major intersection projects, and recently moved toward 11-foot lanes as a standard design for roads up to 45 mph. In downtowns, 10-foot lanes will soon be standard. Context-based standards for bike facilities are also in the pipeline.

The move toward complete streets in Florida, however, is as much about transportation networks and land use as it is about curb-to-curb details. As Hattaway explains, poorly connected street networks and separated land uses increase driving distances and force drivers onto busy arterials, which are often the most dangerous roads. These patterns also create dangerous obstacles and impediments for those who would prefer to walk, bike, or use transit. Many of the meeting’s participants—agency leaders from around the country—agreed that as driving goes up, often as a result of land use patterns, so do the risks.

This begs the question: What can transportation agencies do to influence land use and urban design? Hattaway explains that while FDOT is ambitiously pursuing complete streets projects, the agency is also careful to make sure those projects fit the surrounding context. If, for example, the buildings are set far back from the road and fronted by parking lots, then features like street trees, bulb-outs, and on-street parking may not be a good fit. That limitation, however, can push local authorities to think differently about land use patterns at the site. If the land use can change, the thinking goes, then so can the streets.

Additional background on Florida’s changing design standards is available in our Innovative DOT handbook (Focus Area 5).

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.