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Taking a Closer Look

Road Design: A Turn Ahead

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Has your local government ever been notified that the state highway department is planning to "improve" a rural scenic road, reconfigure a congested suburban intersection, or replace a historic bridge in your community?

Each year American communities are presented with plans to expand or rebuild streets, roads, and bridges. Whether the community is rural or suburban, in Eastern Oregon or Northern Virginia, the explanation is almost always the same. A road that local people are accustomed to is said to be deficient. It does not conform to the latest standards. It is not wide enough or it has too many curves. Unless something is done, motorists will experience delays or unsafe conditions.

Plans are presented that call for a road that is straighter, flatter, and above all, wider than before. The highway department calls the project a road "improvement," but many local citizens are opposed to the project. Why? Because conventional road widening and bridge reconstruction projects often damage scenery, natural resources, and community character for little or no real benefit.

The conventional approach to road design aims to move more traffic faster, at the expense of everything else. In her book, The Living City, author Roberta Gratz tells the story of a small town that seeks help with repairs to an aging bridge, only to be told that repairing the bridge is "not cost efficient." Only by widening the two-lane bridge to four lanes would federal funds be available. Adding two lanes, however, will require widening and straightening the road that provides access to the bridge. This will, in turn, require using adjacent parkland, cutting down a row of 100-year-old trees, and demolishing several historic buildings. When local residents oppose the out-of-scale solution they are accused of opposing progress and are told federal rules "require" the new wider bridge.

Does this sound familiar? Well it should because this scenario, in one form or another, has been repeated through America. Over-scaled, over-priced highway projects are imposed, where smaller, less expensive, equally useful and more environmentally benign solutions would do.

While environmentally harmful, oversized, highway projects are familiar to us all, the good news is that this all-too-common way of designing roads and bridges is being challenged. A growing number of citizens, planners, and local officials are demanding that local transportation improvements incorporate "context-sensitive" highway design (also known as "place sensitive" or "flexible" highway design) to preserve community character and environmental resources. ...

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photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country's most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we've been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on PlannersWeb.com.

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