Designing Walkable Thoroughfares

CNU 21 panel offers lessons to communities for creating great streets

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By Chris McCahill

Communities and state agencies around the nation are embracing complete streets in record numbers. Last year, 130 communities adopted complete streets policies and committed to making public spaces safe and accessible for all users. The next challenge for policymakers and road designers in these places will be to formalize the design process and actually create great streets.

To date, the most thorough guide for planning and designing great urban streets is Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares – a recommended practice from ITE, co-authored by CNU and funded by the U.S. EPA and FHWA. That manual was the focus of an advanced learning course titled, “Streets of Gold,” held at CNU 21 in Salt Lake City on May 29. The course featured panelists from city, regional, and state agencies plus two engineers involved in urban street design projects around the country. 

 

The Panel
Janet Attarian, Project Director, Streetscape & Urban Design, City of Chicago
Nora Beck, Associate Planner, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
Bola Delano, Deputy Director, Office of Planning & Programming, Illinois DOT
Rick Hall, P.E., President, Hall Planning & Engineering
Mathew McElroy, AICP, CNU-A, Deputy Director, Planning & Economic Development, City of El Paso, TX
Rock Miller, P.E., P.T.O.E., Principal, Transportation Planning & Traffic Engineering, Stantec

Although each came from different backgrounds and offered different perspectives, the panelists stuck mainly to four themes that characterize a strong initiative: leadership, planning, policy reform, and education.

 

Leadership

Strong leadership has been a driving force behind each of the reformative transportation initiatives highlighted during the course. In Chicago, the Mayor and DOT Commissioner formally urged the development of its recently published Complete Street Design Guidelines, which borrows principles from the CNU/ITE manual. Citywide efforts in El Paso were set in motion through unique consensus building on the City Council – which voted to formally adopt the manual as recommended practice – and with guidance from the City Manager. Within Illinois DOT, the Secretary brought planning to the agency’s forefront for the first time, improving its capacity for comprehensive long-range decision-making and requiring different groups to work together before reaching final designs.

Rock Miller, Past International President of ITE, noted that wherever he has seen the fastest change, both the Mayor and Council have wanted it. Where there isn’t a consensus, however, a community can also bring about change. “Mayors don’t last forever,” he added.

 

Planning

Rick Hall spoke candidly about the power of comprehensive planning to guide design decisions. Once a land use vision is established, he explained, transportation design often falls into place. This was his experience working on zoning code reform in Cincinnati. He also indicated that planners should identify proposed walkable areas in their comprehensive plans, which can help engineers justify design decisions in those areas.

Other panelists echoed similar messages. El Paso’s revised comprehensive plan recommends specific applications of the CNU/ITE manual and helped pave the way for its adoption. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) helps communities throughout the Chicago region to draft their own plans, through its Local Technical Assistance program.

CMAP’s regional plan, GO TO 2040, paired with the state’s long-range plan have also been instrumental in ushering a new approach within the state DOT. Bola Delano described these plans as ‘blueprints’ guiding the decision-making process within the department, adding that some issues arise because engineers weren’t at the table from the beginning of the plans’ conception. Resolving those issues is one function of her office.  

Another important role of planners at Illinois DOT has been to act as interpreters of federal guidelines – responsible for exploring a wider range of design options. As Miller noted, good design that incorporates pedestrians and bicycles often requires more paperwork, which can slow engineers down or even sometimes deter them entirely. Planners can facilitate that process and lighten the designers’ load.

 

Policy Reform

Immediately during Q&A, the panel was asked whether a municipality could apply the Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares manual without a complete overhaul of zoning codes. Hall’s short answer was: yes, but zoning helps. Mathew McElroy added that form-based code (or SmartCode) isn’t necessary, but codes may need to be corrected to allow proper design – for example, allowing zero setbacks on the front and sides of properties. El Paso has applied the SmartCode and identifies compact walkable areas, which must adhere to the CNU/ITE manual. Perhaps more importantly, however, a generous system of tax abatements incentivizes using the manual citywide.

In Chicago, where the zoning codes aren’t a major issue, Chicago DOT found it necessary to introduce a new system of street typology in its design guidelines. Not only does this help the department talk about different types of streets better than the more conventional ‘functional classification’ system does, explained Attarian, it also builds the right language into the DNA of the department – ensuring the process can hold up as leadership changes.

 

Education

Even with no other codes or policies in place, McElroy made one point abundantly clear: education is key. The City of El Paso is committed to providing continuing education for its staff and every department is CNU-Accredited. Through the accreditation process, city staff has learned a common language, which McElroy calls ‘huge.’ The city’s planning staff can recognize the context of any site they visit (regardless of whether SmartCode is in place) and they can communicate that to the City Engineer, who understands what the design should look like. A context-sensitive approach is engrained into the system at every level.

Together, Illinois DOT and CMAP have also participated in street design training, led by CNU. Earlier this year, close to 80 engineers, planners and public officials from around the state of Illinois participated in two workshops focused on the CNU/ITE manual. The workshops helped the state, counties and municipalities take steps towards better design of complete streets. Similar workshops have also been held in Boulder, CO; Atlanta, GA; Elgin, IL; Blue Springs, MO; and Twinsburg, OH. CNU is improving its capacity to host more workshops in the future.

 

CNU is compiling lessons in the implementation of the Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares manual. If you know of examples or have questions, contact Chris McCahill at csstraining@cnu.org.