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The Role of FHWA Programs in Livability: State of the Practice Summary

The Role of Highways and Highway Programs in Livability

While there are many projects and plans that incorporate livability, very little empirical research exists on the relationship between livability and highways, and on highway programs explicitly. The limited research that does exist has focused on strategies for maximizing multimodal options, minimizing or mitigating the impacts of Interstate highways on neighborhoods (such as environmental justice impacts), implementing CSS, or designing rural highways in a more environmentally sensitive manner to preserve small towns. At the October 2010 Transportation Research Board Conference on Transportation for Livable Communities, only a handful of presentations discussed the role of highways and highway programs in livability.23 The majority of topics included projects focused on traffic calming, transit-oriented development, ridesharing, management and operations (M&O) strategies, and health and environmental issues. Most topics were geared towards creating a stronger multimodal balance within existing transportation networks or retrofitting existing roadways into more livable, urban thoroughfares.

This research gap demonstrates that many misconceptions still correlate livability only with promoting transportation modes for urban settings (e.g., walking, biking, and transit), or do not apply to roadways at all. However, several project examples from the team's research show that livability is relevant to all modes and community contexts. Table 2 highlights some common misconceptions and realities about livability and highways.

Table 2: Misconceptions About Livability and Highways
Misconceptions Reality

Livability does not apply to highways or traditional highway programs

Livability does apply to highways. Highways are an important part of a multimodal transportation network, providing vital links between communities. This network of highways needs to be maintained, strategically enhanced, efficiently operated within a multimodal context, and integrated with community-based programs that span land use, economic development, environmental, and other quality of life issues. Livability principles for highways include strategies to get more efficiency out of the existing highway network, maintaining reasonable travel times through operational improvements, and multimodal enhancements (high occupancy lanes or dedicated transit lanes). Livability principles can help set the context for strategic expansion of the highway network by aligning regional mobility goals with community based growth management and economic development initiatives.

Makes roadways less safe

Livability improvements do make roadways safer. Improving safety for all transportation system users is a key goal of most livability and context-sensitive design improvements. For example, under appropriate conditions, travel lane widths can be narrowed to add a bicycle lane without affecting crash rates or vehicle capacity. The added bicycle lane can also create a safer and more convenient facility for bicyclists.

Focuses mostly on walkable communities

Livability is about providing more transportation choices with a balance of modes and improved connectivity. It is also about ensuring equal access to the transportation network, for persons with disabilities or transportation-disadvantaged populations. Creating a highly accessible and balanced transportation system does include more walking, bicycling, and transit options, but it is also about creating more efficient and connected local roadway networks, regional networks to access regional destinations by highway or transit, and freight access to support a vibrant economy. A balanced, connected transportation network supports livability by increasing choice and convenience across all modes, while improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire system - from neighborhood to regional scales.

Targets cities and transit - and is not for rural communities.

Livability applies to communities regardless of location or size. Livability emphasizes a safer, more balanced multimodal transportation system, along with the preservation of existing communities - whether in a rural, suburban, or urban context. In rural settings, livability may involve improving regional mobility and safety on rural highways that connect families to communities, arms to markets and workers to jobs. Rural livability can also include traffic calming as highways transition through traditional main street downtowns to support local revitalization, economic development, or strategic growth and development goals. Livability strategies can apply to all types of places and transportation modes - the key is tailoring the approach and ultimate design solution to reflect that community's context or setting.

Creating livability solutions is highly dependent on the community context and local issues. For instance, implementing safety strategies for making urban thoroughfares more livable might focus on resolving the vehicular and pedestrian conflicts in high traffic areas. In rural settings, the safety focus might be on reducing vehicular crashes due to high-speed moving traffic facing abrupt stops for left turns, uncontrolled access from side roads, truck traffic, slower moving vehicles sharing the roadway, or adding roadway shoulders to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists and provide a more forgiving roadway for departure crashes, etc. When livability is 'siloed' into addressing stand-alone problems, like congestion, air quality, safety, operations, or pedestrian and bicycle travel, opportunities can be lost to address place-based, community-wide issues more holistically. The following sections highlight some existing examples of livability in practice. These examples demonstrate livability strategies applied to different community settings and scales, and coordinated across multiple programs and agencies.

Highway Projects and Programs

Applying livability principles to traditional highway projects is an evolving practice. Several Federal programs provide livability resources, materials, and training to transportation professionals nationwide. Examples of programs, processes, and other resources include Community Impact Assessment (CIA), a process to evaluate the effects of a transportation action on a community and its quality of life. The assessment process is an integral part of project planning and development that shapes the outcome of a project. FHWA's EcoLogical Program articulates a vision for infrastructure development and ecosystem conservation to harmonize economic, environmental, and social needs and objectives. The Transportation Planning Capacity Building (TPCB) Program has been a resource for agencies in need of scenario planning assistance.

FHWA offers technical assistance through its Resource Centers, which focus on technology deployment, interagency/intermodal coordination, technical assistance, and training support.25 In addition, the National Highway Institute works to improve the performance of the transportation industry through training, including topics like bicycle/pedestrian facility design, integrating transportation and land use planning, and Environmental Justice.26 To better integrate planning, project development and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, FHWA is developing a new "Guidance on Using Corridor and Subarea Planning to Inform NEPA," which incorporates livability concepts and protection of natural and historic resources. FHWA encourages State and local governments to coordinate land use and transportation planning to avoid future highway noise impacts and the need to provide noise abatement. To improve the quality of life in older neighborhoods impacted by traffic noise from existing highways, Tennessee DOT established a new program to facilitate the construction of "retrofit"" noise walls.27 FHWA has had a number of Federal funding programs that can support livability initiatives, such as the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program; the Transportation, Community, and System Preservation Program; the Transportation Enhancement Program, National Scenic Byways Program, and the Recreational Trails Program; and the Safe Routes to School Program.28 The Federal Lands Highway Program also incorporates livability concepts in collaboration with FLMAs and Indian Tribes to enhance recreational experience, resource protection, and consider economic drivers of gateway communities, Tribal Sovereignty and safety.

Updates to the Highway Capacity Manual to incorporate multimodal level of service analysis will also benefit livability initiatives. On the State and local level, many agencies are also incorporating environmental, livability, and community context into their policies and design guidelines. Notable examples include new guidance from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey DOTs (see below), or the Los Angeles Downtown Design Guide. Nearly all the documents include guidelines or performance measures for pedestrian and bicycle travel, and several include transit strategies. Several State DOTs have developed integrated planning, design, project development, or evaluation criteria.

A roundabout in Hamburg, New York.
A road diet in Hamburg that used a red line as a colored buffer zone to separate parking from travel lanes.

Hamburg's roundabouts and road diet improved capacity, safety, and business access. The top picture shows a roundabout with raised truck apron and central landscaping. At bottom, a colored buffer zone separates parking from narrower travel lanes. (Photo Credit)

One strategy already in common use is the CSS approach to corridor planning. The CSS approach reframes the transportation purpose and need to not only address mobility, but also other community goals. In Hamburg, NY, New York State DOT reconstructed the intersection of Main Street and Buffalo Street (U.S. Route 62 and NY Route 391) with modern roundabouts in place of four previously signalized intersections. The roundabouts' designs reflected community goals to both improve traffic flow and slow down traffic so that pedestrians and cyclists could safely use and cross downtown streets.

The reconstruction also incorporated new sidewalks, lighting and crosswalks with curb extensions, and a buffer zone between street parking and travel lanes for more safety. The reconstruction is also part of the community's economic development efforts aimed at attracting more people to visit, linger, and shop in the downtown.32

Another example is Florida's approach to Interstate 95 in the Miami region. Florida DOT coupled capacity expansion on this congested roadway with transit improvements to create a multimodal approach to congestion management. The road is constrained to its current right-of-way but, through changes in geometry, Florida DOT was able to create an additional lane in each direction. The new lanes joined existing carpool lanes to create two variably priced, high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes in each direction. The roadway improvements were accompanied by transit improvements in the corridor, including transit signal priority at 50 intersections parallel to the corridor and express bus service between the destinations served by the corridor. The project also included travel demand management strategies to promote carpooling, telecommuting, and flextime work schedules.33

In addition to these examples, there are some notable emerging trends in highway practice:

Safety Projects and Programs

The mission of safety programs has primarily been to reduce highway related fatalities and injuries. While safety efforts have traditionally focused on reducing vehicular crash fatalities on the roadway network, there have also been efforts to improve safety for all modes, across different community settings. Valuable resources to address safety in walking, bicycling, transit and on rural roadways are available from FHWA.39 The Safe Routes to School Program is an excellent Federal aid program that demonstrates how Federal policy and funding can support efforts by State DOTs, local governments and activists to improve safety and livability. It provides funds to communities to make it safer and easier for children to walk or ride a bicycle to school.40

Appropriate safety solutions to support livability are based on community character and the type and scale of transportation facilities. In compact, walkable communities, whether urban neighborhoods or small towns, an interconnected roadway network of smaller streets supports walking and biking trips, while offering multiple routes for local driving trips at moderate speeds. Many of the guidebooks noted in the previous section encourage flexibility in roadway and intersection design that increases both safety and multimodal capacity, such as medians, turning slip lanes, curb extensions, and roundabouts. These design solutions are being incorporated into new facility designs, as well as in re-engineering existing roadways and making customer access improvements near transit stations.

In October 2010, FHWA's Office of Safety partnered with the Office of Planning and Environment to sponsor a Road Safety Assessment (RSA) on the El Paseo Road Corridor for the City of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The corridor was one of four corridors in the United States to receive an EPA technical assistance grant, and is the only corridor that included HUD and FHWA as partners. The comprehensive planning approach will provide a potential working model for the agencies to use in the future. The EPA grant provided for a planning process to develop a shared vision for what El Paseo Road could become through revitalization over time. The purpose of the RSA was to perform a safety examination of the corridor. One of the end products will be to develop and implement a corridor plan and design overlay district for El Paseo Road, to coordinate economic development, housing, land use, and transportation.

At the local level, the Bird Rock Traffic Management Plan in La Jolla, California, demonstrates how a community revitalization and traffic calming strategy yielded significant safety improvements. This project included major reconstruction of an existing roadway to create a more complete street. Elements of the plan included:

Because of this project, incidents and crashes were reduced by 90 percent. The project has helped revitalize La Jolla Boulevard, acting as a catalyst to several new mixed-use developments, a 139-unit condominium development, and a major drugstore.41

Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs

Enhancing the safety, attractiveness, and viability of bicycle and pedestrian networks is an essential element of livability. Bicycle and pedestrian planning for livability focuses on creating bicycle and walking facilities that serve a variety of trip purposes (i.e., connect an origin and destination). When coupled with local land use strategies to create walkable development patterns, bicycle and pedestrian networks can capture a significant share of overall travel demand. There is significant potential for increasing walking and bicycling on existing roadway networks by making streets more 'complete' - adding accessible sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and amenities, coupled with safer intersection improvements and transit enhancements. While many improvements and connections can be made incrementally over time as redevelopment occurs, targeted public investment can also help maximize the capacity of the existing transportation system. As part of Federal economic recovery efforts, over $2 billion has been invested in bicycle and pedestrian projects over fiscal years 2009 and 2010.42 States invested an additional $740 million in bicycle and pedestrian projects above their regular Federal-aid investments. Some of these projects consisted of installing curb ramps and accessible pedestrian signals to improve access for people with disabilities and completing missing sidewalk links.

In 2000, FHWA issued the Bicycle and Pedestrian Design Guidance that calls for flexibility and judgment be used in its application to particular projects so the nation's transportation system will be balanced, accessible, and safe for all Americans.43 In 2010, DOT provided policy to reflect the Department's support for the development of fully integrated active transportation networks. DOT noted that establishment of well-connected walking and bicycling networks is an important component for livable communities, and their design should be a part of Federal-aid project developments. Walking and bicycling foster safer, more livable, family-friendly communities; promote physical activity and health; and reduce vehicle emissions and fuel use.

A section of Broadway in New York City that was recently redesigned to include separate lanes for bicycles and pedestrians.
An example of a public plaza space that was created by redesign efforts along Broadway.

Reconfigured lanes on Broadway in New York City provided separate lanes for bicycles (top) and reclaimed space for small pedestrian plazas (bottom), while reducing turning movement conflicts at intersections. (Photo Credit)

As part of PlaNYC, New York City's overall sustainability framework, New York City DOT developed a new strategic plan Sustainable Streets.44 In the last year, the DOT has launched many different initiatives and projects, including:

While New York City is a very large urban area, it is also a collection of neighborhoods. Many of the DOT's initiatives and design solutions are applicable to a variety of roadway types and sizes in much smaller cities and towns.

When local projects are planned for and integrated into regional and statewide networks, the potential to use bicycles for both daily travel and long-distance trips can be realized. A national plan for the US Bicycle Route System is intended to facilitate bicycle travel on appropriate roads, paths, and highways over routes that are desirable for interstate bicyclists, providing continuity of roads through States, and connecting and travelling through areas of scenic, cultural, and recreational interest.46 While adding pedestrian and bicycle facilities to all rural roads may not be feasible, both transportation choice and safety can be enhanced by focusing on key segments in existing rural communities. A new 3-mile long pedestrian path on Haxton Way in the Lummi Nation near Bellingham, Washington, is intended to improve safety where a number of pedestrian fatalities have been recorded. Improvements include a bicycle and pedestrian path, solar lighting, and bridges across environmentally sensitive wetlands.

A wooden bridge constructed to help pedestrians and bicyclists cross wetlands along the recently constructed pedestrian and bicycle path along Haxton Way. One of the solar lighting lamp posts that was installed along the pedestrian and bicycle path along Haxton Way.

The new pedestrian and bicycle path along Haxton Way, a two-lane rural road in the Lummi Nation near Bellingham, WA provides a safe, attractive alternative to walking along the road. The path is separated from the roadway, using wooden bridges to cross wetlands (above left) and solar lighting (above right). (Photo Credit)

Management and Operations

Management and Operations (M&O) approaches include a range of strategies to gain more efficiency out of the existing transportation system. This includes (but is not limited to) access management, TDM, ITS, real time traveler information, freight and goods movement, and incident management. In each of these areas, there are opportunities for applying place-based, context-sensitive approaches in support of specific livability goals. For example, when signal timing is balanced in a corridor, it provides improved mobility for both vehicular and bus traffic, and improved pedestrian access.

Effective TDM strategies are broader than just encouraging people to carpool or take transit. Providing travelers with real time traffic and transit information can influence their choice of travel routes and modes, thereby decreasing vehicular loads on congested roadways; a confluence of M&O and TDM for livability benefits. FHWA is currently developing a "Primer on the Role of Management & Operations in Supporting Livability and Sustainability." There are many M&O and TDM strategies that support livability - but explicit livability connections may not yet be made between them by planners and operators. Examples that highlight livability connections include:

Visitors loading and unloading a shuttle bus at one of the stops in Grand Canyon National Park.

The new shuttle bus service, shown above picking up visitors at a stop overlooking Grand Canyon National Park, has increased Park access while reducing vehicle traffic. (Photo Credit)

Multimodal operational improvements can also help protect parks and forest resources while increasing transportation services and economic competitiveness for nearby gateway communities. The FLMA and National Park Service developed the Grand Canyon South Rim Visitor Transportation Plan to address traffic, parking, and visitor access issues, and reduce long wait times at park entrance stations. Improvements included a new shuttle route to the South Rim, a new parking facility, bike rental facilities at the Canyon View Information Plaza, and ITS deployment to improve traveler information. By partnering with nearby gateway communities, such as Tusayan, the Plan identified the need for enhanced transportation services to improve access to and from the National Park. In coordination with the Arizona DOT, a streetscape improvement project was also planned for Tusayan.48

As part of the Urban Partnership Agreement, the Minnesota DOT is combining Tolling, Transit, Telecommuting, Travel Demand Management, and Technology on Interstate 35. They are converting the existing bus-only shoulder lanes and HOV lanes along portions of the Interstate into wider price variable lanes - both occupancy and peak based. A portion of the toll revenues from the new lanes will fund significant fare discounts for transit riders taking trips using the new facilities during peak periods. Increases in transit service and a bus rapid transit system plan are underway and six new park and ride lots are in planning. New dynamic message signs and some existing signs will inform travelers about lane use, toll rates, travel speeds on the different lanes, and transit. The effort also supports expanding the successful Results-Only Work Environment program, in which employers agree to provide employees the flexibility to telecommute or shift their hours to avoid congested commutes. The overall system improvements will increase transportation choice, convenience, equity, and access for transit and carpool users.49

Freight Projects and Programs

Management of freight and goods movement is an essential part of meeting regional mobility and local livability needs. Freight and goods movement covers several modes from on-road trucks, to freight rail, to maritime vessels, to aviation cargo. At the local and neighborhood scale, it includes local deliveries to commercial centers, retail and institutional end-users, and residential areas. Freight activity within a community can serve as an economic generator and support regional industry, helping to fulfill economic development goals. In some cases, freight mobility and local livability goals can come into conflict. One example is the competing interest in rail traffic in several urban areas where there are increasing freight rail capacity needs and increasing passenger rail needs - both limited to a single, constrained corridor. Another conflict area is in the location of freight and goods activity centers and the routing of truck traffic. In each instance, integrated land use and transportation planning can help identify potential conflicts early on and help communities reach consensus on different policy options. The Alameda Corridor is a 20-mile rail cargo expressway between the Port of Long Beach and the City of Los Angeles, including a series of bridges, underpasses, overpasses and street improvements that separate freight trains from street traffic and passenger trains. The $2.4 billion project was funded through a public/private partnership, and included a 10-mile long trench through the central portion, lowering the railway lines to maintain speeds and reduce noise and air pollution. Thirty bridges helped to reconnect communities that had been separated by surface tracks.50 Lowering the rail lines allowed communities like Compton to focus redevelopment on restoring areas along the corridor. Compton created a smart growth implementation plan to reconnect the two sections of Compton Boulevard, the community's historic Main Street.51

An example of the positive influence freight programs can have on local economic development and livability is the South Coast Rail and Economic Development Corridor Plan by the MassDOT and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The project proposes to restore passenger rail transportation from South Station in Boston to the cities of Fall River and New Bedford along an existing freight rail corridor running south from Taunton to Fall River and New Bedford. The plan serves as a blueprint for economic and residential development, job creation, and environmental preservation in an area with growing populations, affordable housing, existing educational opportunities, strong continued freight connections, and an existing industrial base. The project will:

The CREATE partnership between U.S. DOT, the State of Illinois, City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak, and the nation's freight railroads will invest billions to increase rail infrastructure efficiency and residents' quality of life. It will reduce rail and motorist congestion, improve passenger rail service, enhance public safety, promote economic development, create jobs, improve air quality, and reduce noise from idling or slow-moving trains. New overpasses and underpasses will reduce the time Chicago-area motorists spend waiting at railroad crossings, reduce accidents at 25 existing grade crossings, and improve emergency vehicle routes. Rail commuter travel times, schedule reliability, and capacity will improve. Emissions from cars, trucks and locomotives will be greatly reduced, as will noise from idling or slow-moving trains. Green space will also be restored along the lakefront.53

Agency Roles

Creating an efficient, complete transportation network that supports livable communities requires a coordinated effort among Federal, State, regional, and local entities that can influence plans and decisions regarding all modes of transportation and community development. The engagement of local communities to identify their own livability goals is important at all stages of transportation decision making. The following sections discuss existing and potential roles of relevant government agencies and interests at each level.

FHWA and FTA can provide guidance to the State DOTs, MPOs, and transit operators, local planning support and technical assistance, as well as prioritizing funding towards multimodal transportation capital investment. Specific potential actions include:

State DOTs have a valuable role in supporting livability as they provide facilities for regional, interregional, and interstate traveling and goods movement. They can retool planning and design processes for facilities that pass through and connect communities, using a CSS approach. Specific potential actions include:

Regional Planning Agencies, including MPOs, Councils of Governments (COGs), Planning Districts and Development Districts, and Rural Planning Organizations (RPOs) provide a forum for integrated solutions across multiple jurisdictions. Creating place-based frameworks can help integrate policies and strategically target Federal, State, and local funds in support of broader livability goals. Specific potential actions include:

Local Government: Counties, cities, and towns play the central role in implementing livability as they focus directly on improving quality of life for their citizens at the community scale. Specific potential actions include:

HUD-DOT-EPA Interagency Partnership | DOT Livability | FTA Livable & Sustainable Communities
Updated: 10/20/2015
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