Researchers highlight city-centered practices in “roadmap for the 21st century”

By Chris McCahill

Our National Highway System was built on two major pillars—popular support for new highway construction and federal funding from gas taxes—according to a new paper published in Research in Transportation Business and Management. Both have recently shown signs of weakening, however, forcing transportation agencies to adjust and re-prioritize. According to the paper, more city-centered practices are helping agencies meet evolving 21st century transportation needs, often with fewer resources.

The paper’s authors—Professors Eric Dumbaugh at Florida Atlantic University and Wesley Marshall at the University of Colorado-Denver—argue that, while gas taxes or similar revenue sources might be well-suited for maintaining our interstates, urban transportation will thrive more on local resources and must focus on two guiding principles: value capture and livability. To achieve this, the authors describe six emerging practices:

  1. Move people, not cars. Road designers often focus on vehicle throughput, disregarding that many vehicles carry only one person. By moving away from Level of Service (as California has done through SB 743) toward metrics like persons per hour per lane or person delay, agencies can prioritize more efficient use of limited space through ride-sharing, transit, biking, and walking.
  2. Promote short trips. People’s ability to reach destinations (or simply “accessibility”) depends on how quickly they can move, but also how far they have to travel. Encouraging short trips—through land use planning, zoning, and transportation system design—can reduce overall travel demand while supporting livability and value capture.
  3. Protect vulnerable users. Despite decades of improved highway safety, bicycle and pedestrian deaths have spiked significantly in recent years. Agencies can embrace programs like Vision Zero, focusing on protecting the most vulnerable road users, and measure success in terms of total injuries and deaths, rather than treating all crashes equally or measuring safety on a per-mile basis.
  4. Promote lingering. Urban corridors, in addition to being throughways, often serve as important public spaces and places for commerce. In these cases, slow movement can be incredibly beneficial. Road designers can help create spaces that encourage lingering and they can quantify the benefits using metrics like duration of stay, property values, and retail sales.
  5. Trial and error. Agencies are now rolling out projects incrementally and on a temporary basis. This approach, sometimes thought of as “tactical urbanism,” lets agencies test concepts and gauge public response before investing in major capital construction projects.
  6. Leverage the powers of public transit authorities. While agencies struggle to fund major highway expansions with available revenues, transit systems are uniquely capable of generating new revenues for capital projects. Those include fare box sales, advertisements, local general funds, and dedicated revenues from taxes or fees.

Chris McCahill is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.