NACTO Wants to Find Out How Cities Can Design Better Streets, Faster

Is your city government taking too long to deliver safer streets? The National Association of City Transportation Officials is on the case.

What's keeping cities from rolling out changes like this faster? NACTO wants to know. Photo: Nathan Roseberry (CDOT) via NACTO/Flickr
What's keeping cities from rolling out changes like this faster? NACTO wants to know. Photo: Nathan Roseberry (CDOT) via NACTO/Flickr

The National Association of City Transportation Officials, representing more than 50 urban transportation departments across the United States, is known for street design guides that prioritize walking, bicycling, and transit. Now the organization is turning its attention to the nuts-and-bolts of how city bureaucracies can implement these designs in a timely manner, so meaningful change can happen within our lifetimes.

“NACTO, for years now, has been codifying best practices in street design,” said Corinne Kisner, NACTO’s director of policy and special projects. “Now, it’s really critical to help cities understand not just what to do, but how to do it — and how to do it better and faster.”

Many cities have launched pilot programs to experiment with changes like on-street plazas, protected bike lanes, and busways. But few are able to crank out smarter street designs at a consistent pace.

“There’s lots of exciting stuff being built around the country, but it seems like a relatively small number of cities have figured out how to go from a bike lane to a full bike network, for example,” said Kate Fillin-Yeh, NACTO’s director of strategy. “We’re trying to get a sense of what those cities are doing — are there commonalities? Are there lessons we can learn from them?”

To answer these questions, NACTO is launching an initiative called Green Light for Great Streets to identify what’s holding back implementation in cities around the country, and strategies for overcoming those barriers. The effort is partially funded by Greenfield Labs, a research and innovation team within Ford Motor Company’s smart mobility division.

Because every city and state has its own institutional and political landscape, the answers will likely change depending on the place. “It’s really a city-specific question depending on a whole host of things,” said Fillin-Yeh. “Are you a city with a strong mayor or a weak mayor? It’s probably likely that there are a series of best practices that work well in, for example, weak-mayor cities. And those might not work in strong-mayor cities.”

Some cities are already revamping the way they deliver transportation projects. In the past few months, Oakland established a new transportation department headed by New York City’s former chief transportation planner Ryan Russo; Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said she would create a new transportation division within her city’s public works department; and Pittsburgh hired former D.C. transportation exec Karina Ricks to head its new mobility and infrastructure department.

The position in Pittsburgh was created after Mayor Bill Peduto asked NACTO to diagnose flaws in the city’s project delivery process, reports The Incline:

NACTO then connected the administration to Sam Salkin, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate student… [who] found a lack of communication between agencies and stakeholders, which led to missed opportunities. (For example, when DPW repaves streets, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian planner usually doesn’t get the plans early enough to propose new bike lane infrastructure that could be installed concurrently.)

Earlier this year, Salkin met with the mayor and recommended the creation of a transportation director position, which Peduto embraced.

NACTO is also working with Denver to help straighten out its transportation bureaucracy.

“Cities are asking about the handoff between projects along the way and whether their nuts-and-bolts processes are set up to deliver these new types of projects,” Kisner says. “That’s really where things fall through the cracks — when you hand off between design and implementation and outreach, at different steps along the way.”

In some cases, city agencies may need to change their procurement practices, not just their internal structures, to improve the implementation process. Cities often contract with construction companies on a project-by-project basis, which Fillin-Yeh says can add time to each project. Transitioning to on-call contracts for striping and small-scale concrete work can allow cities to be more flexible with their resources, she said. And setting public implementation schedules and benchmarks can help keep cities accountable.

“A lot of cities, they’re not used to doing this type of stuff yet,” says Fillin-Yeh. She’s looking forward to identifying the obstacles transportation agencies face that hold back better street designs. “There is so much potential in cities to do so much, and figuring out how to unlock that stuff is going to be huge.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is the difference between Generation Greed’s impact on mass transit and its impact on bicycling.

    Even after that generation has passed on, its debts, underfunded pensions, inadequate infrastructure reinvestment and expansion, and perpetual contract featherbedding provisions will cause increasing harm to those who follow.

    You can’t turn around something like the NYC subway in a year, and the process won’t even start until the drain from rising state and local public employee and federal old age benefits stops going up a decade or more in the future.

    On the other hand, the cost of bicycling is so low that Generation Greed’s chief impact is obstruction and traffic violence. This will ebb away very quickly once enough of them pass on, particularly since the not greedy members of that generation are likely to live longer and stay active longer — with bicyclists living longest of all.

    As I get older myself, I see that although little changes from year to year an enormous amount can change over two decades. A complete transformation becomes possible. Those behind the bike boom in the 1970s will live to see it.

  • Jacob Wilson

    I’m not looking forward to having to take away that generations drivers licenses when they get too old to drive.

  • c2check

    Too bad they really only built places where they have to drive and can’t age in place ¯_(?)_/¯

  • Larry Littlefield

    Oh you bet its too bad. After spending virtually her whole life in southwest Yonkers and never learning to drive, my grandmother moved “up the line” to northern Westchester to be closer to her adult children.

    At one visit she told me she was spending more on taxis to get to the doctor than she was on the doctor.

    Basically what has to happen is some kind of dynamic carpooling system that allows younger seniors to drive older seniors around. Either than or, according to Google, self-driving cars.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

NACTO Urban Street Design Guide Sets Out to Change the DNA of Our Cities

|
In a direct challenge to the long-standing authority of state DOTs to determine how transportation infrastructure gets designed, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) yesterday launched its Urban Street Design Guide. NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide has already empowered cities around the country to embrace protected bike lanes and other innovative designs that […]

Caltrans Endorses the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide

|
It wasn’t a total surprise, but exciting nevertheless for bicycle advocates gathered at the NACTO “Cities for Cycling” Road Show in Oakland last night. Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty announced that the agency will endorse the use of the National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide, giving California cities the state DOT’s blessing to install modern […]

NACTO Previews a Progressive Design Guide for City Streets

|
One of the interesting developments to come out of the National Association of City Transportation Officials “Designing Cities” conference (currently in its second day) was the announcement of a wide-ranging new design guide to be released next year. NACTO’s “Urban Streets Design Guide” will show how streets of every size can be re-oriented to prioritize […]

A New Blueprint for Streets That Put Transit Front and Center

|
The National Association of City Transportation Officials has released a new design guide to help cities prioritize transit on their streets. How can cities integrate bus rapid transit with protected bike lanes? How can bus stops be improved and the boarding process sped up? How should traffic signals be optimized to prioritize buses? The Transit Street Design Guide goes into greater […]

Washington DOT Officially Endorses NACTO Street Design Guide

|
One state down, 49 to go. The Washington state Department of Transportation is the first state DOT to endorse the Urban Street Design Guide put out by the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ (NACTO). The manual provides instruction on creating treatments like protected bike lanes, transit-priority streets, and parklets, which aren’t included in the […]