Meet the Man on a Mission to Make Florida Walkable and Bikeable
Billy Hattaway just might have the most challenging job in any American transportation agency. As the Florida Department of Transportation’s lead official on bicycle and pedestrian safety, he’s charged with making Florida — consistently rated among the deadliest states for walking and biking — safe for people to get around under their own power.
Since FDOT hired him for the post in 2011, Hattaway has been leading the effort to reform the way this enormous agency designs and builds streets, winning accolades from advocates and the national press in the process. He also heads up one of Florida DOT’s seven districts, directing policy for the southwest corner of the state.
We recently spoke to Hattaway about how the reform process is going. Here’s what he had to say. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were you doing before you were at FDOT?
I was working in the private sector. I worked for 25 years at Florida DOT in three stints. I was trying to advance these [street safety] concepts in the late 80s and early 90s and I didn’t have much success. So I went to the private sector.
I was consulting with VHB [Engineers], which is based in Boston. Most of the work that I did was bike and pedestrian planning. I was doing station area planning for the extension of the Phoenix light rail. It was all form-based code and street design basically for the Phoenix light rail.
It sounds like you have been given a very hard job.
We had to do a lot of structural changes to the organization to drive the change. We have 6,500 employees and you’re trying to change 50 years of planning and design culture.
[My last stint at FDOT] I just couldn’t make a whole lot of progress there. Couldn’t get much support. They wouldn’t say anything, but [engineers] just didn’t follow though on what I told them.
We had the second modern roundabout guide in the country. Back then the only data was from Australia and Europe. People in the district just said, “Americans are different, people are different here. People don’t know how to drive roundabouts.” We only had seven in the built state system and only one was initiated by the state DOT.
But now, I was able to get the Secretary [formerly Ananth Prasad] to say that it’s required to consider roundabouts when redesigning a signalized intersection. Now our data shows basically the benefits and costs of a roundabout over a signalized intersection — they’re 8 to 1. You can’t argue with that kind of data.
What’s the biggest challenge?
We’re trying to change 50 years of design culture. We’re making progress on the culture side of things. This time, I have the support of our secretary.
Why do you think Florida became such a standout in bad conditions for biking and walking?
It’s the result of having the vast majority of our growth occur in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. If you go into the cities that were established before WWII — downtown Orlando they have grid.
I lived in Orlando before Disney. Before then, we didn’t have sprawl. From the mid-’60s on there was nothing but sprawl development. That was the result of things that the Federal Housing Administration put into place. There’s a lot of things that contributed to that. Certainly the focus on moving cars was a part of that. Everyone wanted the American dream. It’s a hard ship to turn. All the retail followed that pattern. Now we have these big box stores.
What are you trying to do to turn the ship?
In my experience doing this work, on the transportation side we have to equip our engineers with a different set of tools to do design. We had sort of a one-size-fits-all approach to street design, whether it was rural or urban. For example, we used 12-foot lanes everywhere.
In Florida DOT, we are changing our standards. If you’re a state route going through an urban area, the standard lane width will be 10 feet. We’re in the process of changing the standard. We’ve already adopted the 11-foot lane standard and we’ll be putting in the 10-foot lane here shortly.
We’re using what I call context, volume, and speed. All three things need to be looked at, and context will have a much bigger role than it’s had in the past. We’ve treated context now as if it were landscaping — making the area pretty.
But we need communities to work with us. We’re not going to do 10-foot lanes where the buildings are set back 500 feet from the road and there are huge surface parking lots.
Is there a growing sense of recognition around Florida that biking and walking conditions are unsafe?
The cities absolutely get it. The city of Orlando knows this, they’ve known it for quite some time. The city of Sarasota gets it. St. Pete. The driving force is the demanding population that wants things done differently. We go out and seek public input. And one of the biggest things people say is, we want more walking and biking facilities.
Has there been any evidence yet that this is having a positive impact on safety?
It’s too soon. We have to actually build some of this stuff. We know it works based on research data that’s been done elsewhere. We know that reducing lane width in combination with the right land use patterns will reduce vehicle speed.
We have a new policy in place for road diets.
This is a state policy?
So you are rewriting the state’s street design guidebook?
We’re updating the Plans Preparation Manual [the engineering guide for the state’s engineers]. Smart Growth America is assisting us with implementing our complete streets policy. We’ll help facilitate workshops for six months to help implement the complete streets policy
It’s pretty neat that the people who basically wrote us up [for being the most deadly state] help facilitate our complete streets policy is huge.
So Florida has a complete streets policy now?
It’s a state policy — complete streets — signed by the [transportation] secretary. It’s a policy that says this is what the department is going to do. All of our design guidance will need to be in line with our policy. That’s what’s going to change the culture — that, and the training. We’ve been doing training now for two years.
With your own engineers?
Yes, and with the counties with the worst problems. We’re focused on 15 counties.
How long will all this take?
It’s going to take a long time. The amount of change that we’re driving, it’s going to take a long time. We’re not going to change driver behavior overnight. Portland, Oregon, didn’t change the things they did over night.