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Will States and the Feds Let Cities Tame Urban Highways?

Cities are clashing with state transportation departments on road redesign. In an era of changing preferences, tensions are rising. Maybe it’s time to restore local control.

National Landing in Northern Virginia, where the local business improvement district wants to convert an elevated highway that divides National Landing’s downtown into a walkable boulevard with narrower lanes and slower car speeds. (Sblover99/Wikipedia)
Urban highways are a fixture of city life in the U.S. — but much of the time cities don’t control them. They are the creatures of higher levels of government. The downtowns of many major cities, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, are bisected by large overpasses that were built using state and federal funds. They remain subject to state or federal engineering standards. And they have been designed, above all, for automotive speed.

Recently this has grown controversial, as urban advocates push for re-knitting city fabrics and reducing pollution. Once unthinkable, the idea of taming urban highways has become mainstream, with Democrats in the U.S. Senate announcing a proposal to remove or downgrade these roads. Other proposals call for reform of the design standards — which originate with the federal government and are enforced by states — that lead to over-engineering.

The conflict is playing out in one of the bellwethers of urban America’s future: National Landing. This is the Northern Virginia neighborhood where Amazon put its HQ2, and it is drawing lots of other public and private investment. The local business improvement district (BID) wants to convert U.S. Route 1, an elevated highway that divides National Landing’s downtown, into a walkable boulevard with narrower lanes and slower car speeds. To achieve this, the BID is funding a “People Before Cars” campaign, which cites statistics showing that the road is less crucial to the local economy than officials may think. Some “75 percent of trips from National Landing residents are car-free,” the BID website claims, while Amazon has noted that many of its employees will live within walking distance of HQ2.

But the state of Virginia wants to maintain the status quo. As the Washingtonian reported in May, Virginia transportation officials proposed an alternative that would keep the road at about the current width. The agency’s concern is that narrowing Route 1 would divert too much traffic to local roads.

A similar debate is occurring in Boston. The viaduct carrying Interstate 90 through the city’s Allston neighborhood is near the end of its useful life, and state officials have been working on a replacement plan. Local mobility advocates have called for an at-grade reconstruction that is less disruptive than the elevated highway, and as in Virginia, their advocacy has garnered support from residents and the business community. Yet the Massachusetts Department of Transportation refuses to commit to such a plan; it may even make the elevated viaduct taller and wider, reports CommonWealth Magazine.

This local-versus-state-and-federal dynamic plays out in every city. The Federal Highway Administration issues a Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that sets guidelines for how cities set their traffic signals and road markings. Kea Wilson writes in Streetsblog that the manual has not been updated in 11 years, despite increasing pressure to shift the incentives around road use.

State and Federal Highway Administration guidelines dictate lane widths, shoulder widths and curve radii, and are written with automobile speed in mind. Highway engineers tend to use a “level of service” (LOS) metric to determine whether a road has adequate capacity. This calculation factors in speed and vehicle density. The metrics vary among types of roads, but generally prioritize reducing driver delays.

Streetsblog has written on the LOS standard and how it acts as a barrier to pedestrian improvements: “If the top priority is to move cars — and not, say, to improve public safety or economic well-being — the result is a transportation system that will move a lot of cars while failing at almost everything else.”

Some local and state governments are fighting back against the federal standards. Seattle’s City Council passed a resolution that altered LOS standards to include optimal accommodation thresholds for walking, biking and transit use as well as driving. California has a law, passed in 2016, that measures vehicle miles traveled as the relevant metric informing road design. And throughout the pandemic, many cities have closed off key streets to car traffic, opening them to outdoor dining and pedestrian enhancements.

The interesting thing — as I noted in Governing last year — is that the private sector is often on board with these retrofits. Even as the National Landing BID is trying to “boulevardize” Route 1, another BID has successfully lobbied for Manhattan’s Meatpacking District to become permanently car-free. Business interests are accepting a tradeoff in these cases: to have slightly slower in-and-out car access in exchange for streetscapes that are safer, quieter, more attractive and less polluted.

In fairness, state DOTs try to look beyond the narrow interests of any one neighborhood; their concern is whether freight and other traffic can move freely. But it may be unwise for them to force this “throughput at all costs” vision onto the urban parts of state and federal routes. These areas often have tremendous economic and cultural value that is diminished by designing them solely as highways. At the very least, local interests should have some say in how their right-of-way is being used, even if it runs counter to the whims of traffic engineers and top-down road standards.

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report Content Manager Ethan Finlan. 

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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