Feds Propose Major Rule Changes to Eliminate Barriers to Safer Streets

Planners will more easily be able to design "Great Streets" like Fifth Street in Dayton, Ohio, pending new federal rules. Photo: APA
By eliminating outdated design standards, the feds can make it much easier for local governments to design streets like Fifth Street in Dayton, Ohio. Photo: APA

Applying highway design standards to city streets has been a disaster for urban neighborhoods. The same things that make highways safer for driving at 65 mph — wide lanes, “clear zones” running alongside the road that have no trees or other “obstacles” — make surface streets dangerous and dreadful for walking, killing street life.

The one-size-fits-all approach to street design has been propagated, in part, by federal standards that apply to a surprisingly large number of urban streets. But not for much longer. In what appears to be a major breakthrough, yesterday the Federal Highway Administration proposed rule changes that will allow cities and towns to more easily design streets in a way that’s consistent with an urban setting.

The FHWA may drop 11 of the 13 design requirements that currently apply to streets in the National Highway System designed for speeds below 50 miles per hour. In place of requirements that dictate things like street width and clear zones, FHWA is encouraging engineers to use judgment and consider the surroundings.

According to Joe McAndrew at Transportation for America, the rule change “will make it dramatically easier for cities and communities of all sizes to design and build complete streets”:

This covers most of the non-interstate roads and highways running through communities of all sizes that are built with federal funds, like the typical four-lane state highway through town that we’re all familiar with, perhaps with a turning lane on one side. Incidentally, many of these roads are among the most unsafe for pedestrians.

In its press release, FHWA said the change is part of an effort to eliminate “outdated standards.”

“The shift in FHWA’s approach was prompted by current research in the field of geometric design showing that the majority of the 13 design criteria yielded significant benefits only on higher speed roadways,” the agency stated.

If the proposed changes are approved, local governments would no longer have to deal with a ton of red tape any time their plans deviate from the highway-inspired standards. As it stands, exemptions are often required if planners want to plant street trees, for example, or reduce vehicular lane widths to fit in bike lanes. The process is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and discourages many local agencies from even trying to redesign their streets.

For example, when New Haven, Connecticut, was redesigning Route 34 to be a multi-modal street, the city had to seek half a dozen design exemptions. The final design included a lot of compromises, and the city blamed federal rules for some disappointing aspects of the project.

Bill Schultheiss, an engineer with the Toole Design Group, said the changes are welcome news.

“We need to move away from cookie cutter, cut-and-paste designs and allow engineers to be the creative problem solvers that most of us naturally are,” he said. “This is a tremendous change of direction by FHWA that needs our support.”

Schultheiss said it’s important for people to weigh in with supportive comments for the rule changes.

22 thoughts on Feds Propose Major Rule Changes to Eliminate Barriers to Safer Streets

  1. A positive change to be sure, but FHWA needs to go further. There should be (1) requirements that engineers consider pedestrian and cyclist safety; and (2) requirements that engineers consider what enforcement mechanisms are necessary to ensure that drivers do not exceed the design speed (e.g., speed cameras)

  2. The article states that the feds may “drop 11 of the 13 rules”. I think the article is wrong. I read the Federal Register Rule linked in the article and it states that only the following 3 criteria are proposed to be eliminated:

    Bridge Width.
    Vertical Alignment
    Lateral Offset to Obstruction
    Lane width is not on the list to be eliminated, but the rule states the following:
    “Lane width is an important design criterion with respect to crash frequency and traffic operations on high-speed and rural highways. The design standards provide the flexibility to choose lane widths as narrow as 10 feet on some facilities.”

    The lateral offset to obstruction is a very positive change.

  3. This and California’s recent overhaul of LOS requirements under CEQA would likely make the redo of Van Ness a faster process were it to start today.


    As for hope for Van Ness, the planning and approvals are all said and done. Construction is set to begin next year. Overview here:


  4. Wait a minute. Do you seriously think this is a good thing for cyclists, pedestrians and people with disabilities? No shoulders on bridges required, no limit to grade (don’t tell me you’ve never been passed on a hill when you can’t see oncoming traffic and the ADA allows sidewalks to have the same grade as adjacent roads), and no clearance from obstructiions (signposts, trees and all the other street furniture you find on urban streets). This is not a good thing! Drop the warrants for traffic signals or speed limits, now that would make streets safer! We’ve got block after block of arterials with no signal and can’t lower speed limits until over 85% of drivers go the lower speed limit!

  5. You did NOT read the new regulations carefully. Please do so!

    — First of all, the “85%” rule is a California-specific problem, and you need to fix it in the California legislature.. In the rest of the country, we are allowed to design city streets to be slower.
    — Second, the lack of clearance from obstructions *slows drivers down*. This is documented by many, many, many studies. If drivers feel “closed in”, they slow down — if it looks wide open, they speed.

    The FHWA regulations have been requiring super-wide “wide open” roads which has been encouraging speeding. This has happened on three separate projects in four municipalities in my area; one project was cancelled entirely due to failure to deal with the FHWA regulations and NY State’s copying those regulations, one was funded locally with the road delisted from state and national aid lists to avoid the FHWA and state regulations, and one ended up being overly wide and dangerous. THIS HAS TO STOP, it’s killing people, and the new regulations will help stop it.

    — Third, the bridge width regulation was removed, but the shoulder and lane width regulations remained in place (for fast roads), which determines the width of the bridge anyway; this was a matter of redundancy. For slow streets, what you are looking for is not a shoulder, but a Complete Streets sidewalk requirement.

    — Finally, you’re actually wrong about the ADA rules on sidewalks; it only allows them to share the grade of the adjacent road if it isn’t practical to make them meet the standards. So failing to meet the grade standard for ADA sidewalks would require justification.

  6. That’s… quite complicated to research. It’s probably most of the roads. In my area, there’s a list of federal-aid highways (which includes most of the numbered state highways and some random roads as well), and an even *longer* list of state-aid highways which includes nearly everything except some of the side streets.

    The state of NY, however, has basically copied the FHWA regulations, so in effect they apply to the state-aid highways as well as to the federal-aid highways. Once FHWA relaxes their rules, the state will probably relax their rules.

  7. This would be great, except that in my experience, it’s not only the Feds that cause a lot of the urban design issues we see today, but also the local fire codes.

    Street widths, turning radii, building heights, parking standards, on-street landscaping, school design, etc. A lot of the standards fire districts adopt in the name of public safety, even though they’re only relevant in the extremely rare instance of a fire, have the same purpose that FHWA standards do: making the roads better for vehicles. Only in the fire code instance, the trucks are much larger. We’ve tried implementing tighter curb radii for pedestrian safety in TND standards, only to have them shot down because the fire trucks “can’t” make the turn.

    Still, one less roadblock to a return to good urban design is mightily appreciated! I’ll be interesting to see how well and quickly the state DOT engineers accept these changes, if implemented!

  8. Where I live, we have very progressive local governments who pay attention to the most up-to-date studies, so our obstacles have been mostly at the state and partly at the federal level.

    I understand that other places may have local-level obstacles, but eliminating the federal obstacles is a good start; I think the states should be next. After that we can start working on improving policies in one locality at a time, but it’s hard when the localities are handcuffed by the state or feds.

  9. I see now where I was mistaken. Only the design speed and structural capacity are required to be met for roads < 50 mph. So this will allow narrower travel lanes to accommodate bike lanes on streets. This is the reason we didn't get a bike lane on a street in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks for telling me to read this more carefully! But the 85% rule also applies in Ohio and I WISH it would be relaxed.

  10. I thought the new PROWAG allows pedestrian routes within the highway right of way to match the grade of the adjacent roadway. Otherwise, they are supposed to stay within 5% grade. I’ve heard the new PROWAG will be adopted in early 2016.

  11. I haven’t checked the new rules. I’ve only seen the current ADAAG rules. If they’re trying to weaken the ADAAG rules for sidewalks, I’d expect the disability advocates to be out in force complaining (I would be complaining, my fiancee uses a wheelchair!) Please do tell me more.

  12. Thanks.

    I see the proposed grade restriction is 5% (1 in 20) for independent paths, and “shall not exceed the road grade” for roads.

    The grade restriction for paths on building sites is 1 in 12, or 8.3%. Roads VERY rarely have grades steeper than 8.3%. So this is already a stronger requirement than the general rule.

    The only question I have is about whether landings will be required on long slopes; they are required on paths on building sites.

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