Rebuilding Roads with “Practical Design”

Today on the Streetsblog Network, Richard Layman of Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space finds some interesting ideas about the future of American roads in a somewhat unlikely source — the super-mainstream Parade magazine, which comes as an insert with more than 400 newspapers around the country and claims a circulation of 33 million. Layman looks at a Parade’s cover story from yesterday, entitled How We Can Save Our Roads. The Parade article looks at an engineering practice called "practical design" that is being implemented in Missouri:

2680712117_39559c6159.jpgPhoto by TheTruthAbout via Flickr.

Today, when Missouri engineers design highways, they aim “not to build perfect projects, but to build good projects that give you a good system,” says
[Missouri’s transportation boss, Pete K.] Rahn. Practical Design says to “start at the bottom of the standards and go up to meet the need. When you meet the need, you stop.”

Layman adds: 

The idea of "practical design" has the ability to be "reverse-engineered" and applied more broadly than it is currently being applied in Missouri and other states.

For example, "practical design" of neighborhood roads in a city residential area should mean that the roads don’t get built to the level that accommodates speeds of 50 to 75 mph. After all, the posted speed limits are 25 mph, plus these are mixed-use areas with plenty of walkers, bicyclists, and non-through road traffic (buses, delivery vehicles, etc.).

Elsewhere around the network:  Transportation for America summarizes the data from the American Public Transportation Association about last year’s surge in ridership on mass transit; Bike Commute Tips Blog writes about the link between the economic downturn and bike commuting; and Bicycle Fixation has a nifty history of the connection between bikes and the city.

  • Practical design is a great way to build more roads with limited money, but the practical effect for other modes means that the bike lane or sidewalk is usually the first thing that MoDOT cuts from a project. So far our experience here in Missouri is that the savings gained from practical design is almost always used to build more of the road, not put into any bike/ped infrastructure.

  • john

    MoDOT in building the New 64 in St Louis has largely destroyed practical design. Some pedestrian bridges across the highway have been eliminated. What was once short walks to numerous stores, restaurants, etc of 0.25 miles roundtrip became 3.6 miles roundtrip. Neighborhood streets have been torn up with the increase in construction traffic for the last 23 months and there are no plans to repair them and the replaced sewer system has been poorly rebuilt.

    Over 70 homes have been torn down to make room for more lanes of traffic and large/longer ramps. Not one mile of cycling infrastructure along this important route through the heart of the city has been included. In fact on arterial roads, former favored cycling routes have been eliminated to make another lane for motorized traffic caused by closing the 64 for upgrades. This has been a disaster for pedestrians and cyclists.

  • Some of this has the potential to be excellent. However, practical design doesn’t always mean what you think it does. State DOT’s want to save money on projects. If, under the rubric of “practical design”, they do things like use drainage ditches instead of enclosed sewers or eliminate sidewalks or any aesthetic treatments, this is a step backwards, not forwards, IMO.

  • Brent Hugh

    Agreed that the practical effect of practical design in Missouri is that MoDot cuts out bicycle and pedestrian accommodations first thing.

    Another downside is they tend to eliminate things like shoulders that don’t have a “tangible benefit” when in fact even though a shoulder is not an official bicycle or pedestrian facility, they are in fact very important for bicylists and pedestrians in many situations.

    Also unlike the related philosophy of “context sensitive design,” which has as a very high priority taking into consideration needs of the community, practical design very clearly has as its highest goal saving money.

    The result is the needs of the community are given lower than usual priority, especially if those needs cost more money.

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