North Carolina DOT Needs a Culture Change to Translate Complete Streets Policy Into Action

North Carolina DOT wants to widen Ashville's Merrimon Avenue, which is already a four lane commercial speedway. Photo:  Google Maps
North Carolina DOT wants to widen Ashville's Merrimon Avenue, which is already a four lane commercial speedway. Photo: Google Maps

Cities and states all over the country have adopted “complete streets” policies that say walking, biking, and transit — not just driving — need to be considered in street design and transportation policy. But changing the entrenched practices of transportation agencies is easier said than done.

In North Carolina, where the state DOT adopted a complete streets policy in 2009, it can be difficult to discern any actual improvement in practice. Residents of Asheville, for instance, are in the midst of fending off car-centric NC DOT projects like the widening of Merrimon Avenue and the I-26 Connector.

To his credit, DOT Secretary James Trogdon has acknowledged the disconnect. He recently commissioned an outside consultant to evaluate how well the agency is implementing its complete streets policy.

In a report released earlier this month, WSP USA (formerly known as Parsons Brinckerhoff) substantiated concerns that NC DOT has not made the transition to multi-modal transportation planning [PDF]. Cars still come first.

The good news is that people who work at the agency recognize the problem and have thought about how to fix it. In 45 interviews with NC DOT staff, municipal workers, regional planning agencies, and biking and walking advocacy organizations, WSP identified these four barriers to complete streets.

1. Bias in project selection

One of the big obstacles, interviewees said, is NC DOT’s project scoring method. The formulas that determine which projects the agency builds remain stacked against complete streets. A project with walking and biking infrastructure “may score higher on safety criteria, but the project will have lower scores on cost-benefit and congestion, which brings its overall score down.”

In addition, the state requires cities and towns to share the costs of features outside the curb — namely sidewalks — which can be prohibitively expensive for some municipalities.

2. No accountability

There is no person or division inside NC DOT with clear responsibility for implementing or coordinating complete streets. Without dedicated staff, improvements for walking and biking can get lost in the shuffle, interviewees said.

3. Institutional inertia

Historically, NC DOT is a highway department, and the institutional culture remains embedded in the highway era. (The branch of the agency devoted to road projects is still called the Division of Highways.) Changing agency culture to adopt a truly multi-modal perspective has not come easily.

“It is important for NCDOT to have a paradigm shift,” WSP wrote, saying the agency needs to turn away from an “auto-centric focus.” The report recommends adopting new metrics to gauge success that focus on the convenience and safety of walking and biking. (More detailed recommendations are expected in a follow-up report.)

4. Outdated design guidelines

Complete Streets guidelines have not been incorporated into the design manuals used by NC DOT engineers. The existing guidelines still emphasize auto travel, not walking, biking, or transit. The engineers rely heavily on the AASHTO design manual or “Green Book,” which has been notoriously sluggish to incorporate design templates like protected bike lanes.

  • Matt

    I fear NC is heading in to the same hole as WI, with extensive expansion of highways and city bypasses in the name of moving cars quickly. See I-42, I-87, I-74, I-73, I-840, I-140, and every mid- to large-city now has a ring road. In defense, the population is up 28% since the 2000 census (over 2m new people).

  • Complete streets policies are only as good as the design regulations they influence. If a CS policy recommends 10′ lanes but that same DOT still has an old 12′ standard that engineers have been using for 20 years, guess which document wins?
    Policy documents must filter down to regulations and design standards to be effective.

  • Terry Karlson

    From living in NC for the past 12 years, I think a few things need to be taken into consideration when considering CS in NC. 1. NC is still a very historical & “stuck in our ways” state. Unless you are in the urban areas like CLT, Raleigh, or Asheville, CS design won’t be used by the majority of the population. I think the administration knows this and doesn’t want to invest in assets that ultimately wouldn’t be used for many years. 2. Sprawl – NC’s urban areas and sub-urban area are far apart. That said, It’s virtually impossible to use multi-modal transportation without your commute taking well over an hour – on a good day.

  • Kevin Withers

    The Complete Streets idea is best when kept to a label button, a slogan, etc. Areas that “adopt” complete streets are really adopting the PR message, don’t expect that translates into actual policy change. That would be better addressed by voter initiative.

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