Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration
Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

FHWA Functional Classification Guidelines

Section II - Concepts, Definitions, and System Characteristics

Note: This publication was updated in 2013. This version is for archival purposes. For the current version, see

Revised in 1989, this document was electronically scanned in April, 2000. The scanned image was processed through Optical Character Recognition software, the resulting text being formatted for the World Wide Web. Changes are restricted to:

Concepts, Criteria and Procedures


Functional classification is the process by which streets and highways are grouped into classes, or systems, according to the character of service they are intended to provide. Basic to this process is the recognition that individual roads and streets do not serve travel independently in any major way. Rather, most travel involves movement through a network of roads. It becomes necessary then to determine how this travel can be channelized within the network in a logical and efficient manner. Functional classification defines the nature of this channelization process by defining the part that any particular road or street should play in serving the flow of trips through a highway network.

A schematic illustration of this basic idea is provided in Figure II-1. In the upper diagram, lines of travel desire are shown as straight lines connecting trip origins and destinations. Relative widths of lines indicate relative amounts of travel desire.

Figure II-1 Channelization of Trips, this figure shows two illustrations. The first shows an illustration of two cities, a town, a village and individual farms. The lines connecting them are bands that indicated the number of trips people desire to make between these centers. Although some trips would like to go directly between the farms and the larger cities, it is not always feasible to connect these points directly by roads. Instead, we tend to channel the trips from the farms to the villages and towns by collector roads and then connect the town directly to the two cities by arterial highways. This is shown in the second illustration.

Relative sizes of circles indicate relative trip generating or attracting power of the places shown. Since it is impractical to provide direct-line connections for every desire line, trips must be channelized on a limited road network in a logical and efficient manner. This can be done as shown in the lower diagram of Figure II-1. Note that the heavy travel movements are directly served or nearly so; and that the lesser ones are channeled into somewhat indirect paths. The facilities shown in the diagram have been labeled local, collector and arterial; terms which are descriptive of their functional relationships. Note particularly that this hierarchy of functional types relates directly to the hierarchy of travel distances which they serve.

A more complete (though still schematic) illustration of a functionally classified rural network is shown in Figure II-2. Since the cities and larger towns generate and attract a large proportion of the relatively longer trips, the arterial highways generally provide direct service for such travel. The intermediate functional category, the collectors, serves small towns directly, connects them to the arterial network, and collects traffic from the bottom-level system of local roads, which serves individual farms and other rural land uses.

Figure II-2 Schematic Illustration of a functionally classified rural highway network, this illustration shows a typical rural farming area that has a grid pattern of roads. At the northwest corner, there is a large city and at the southeast corner there is another city. Along the periphery, there are some smaller towns. On the grid pattern of roads, there are several small villages. Most of the area is devoted to farms. The illustration shows that the farms are connected by local roads to collector roads, which directly link the villages. The collectors are also connected to arterial roads that link the cities. The largest cities (the one located in the northwest and the one located in the southeast are connected directly by an arterial that is a diagonal road which cuts across the grid. Smaller cities are directly linked to the larger cities but not directly connected to each other. The idea is to show how trips are channeled up the hierarchy of village, towns and cities.

Although the above example has a rural setting, the same basic concepts apply in urban areas as well. A similar hierarchy of systems can be defined; however, because of the high intensity of land use and travel throughout an urban area, specific travel generation centers are more difficult to identify. In urban areas additional considerations, such as spacing, become more important in defining a logical and efficient network. A schematic illustration of a functionally classified urban street network is shown in Figure II-3.

Figure II-3 Schematic of a portion of an urban arterial street network, this figure depicts a fairly typical suburban development. It is about one square mile with arterial roads forming the perimeter. Inside there is some public space in the center. Three collector roads link the public space to one of the arterials roads on the perimeter. Local streets provide access to individual homes and connect them to collector roads.

Allied to the idea of traffic channelization is the dual role the highway network plays in providing (1) access to property, and (2) travel mobility. Access is a fixed requirement, necessary at both ends of any trip. Mobility, along the path of such trips, can be provided at varying levels, usually referred to as "level of service." It can incorporate a wide range of elements (e.g., riding comfort and freedom from speed changes) but the most basic is operating speed or trip travel time.

It was pointed out in the discussion of Figure II-1 that the concept of traffic channelization leads logically not only to a functional hierarchy of systems, but also to a parallel hierarchy of relative travel distances served by those systems. This hierarchy of travel distances can be related logically to a desirable functional specialization in meeting the access and mobility requirements. Local facilities emphasize the land access function. Arterials emphasize a high level of mobility for through movement. Collectors offer a compromise between both functions. This is illustrated conceptually in Figure II-4.

Figure II-4, Relationship of Functionally Classified Systems in Serving Traffic Mobility and Land Access, this figure depicts the proportion of service provided by the three main classes of roads: arterials, collectors and locals. At the top are arterials and their purpose is mainly to provide for mobility. Land access is of only secondary concern. The next block shows collectors and their purpose is equally divided between mobility and land access. Here, there are some differences within the collectors, at the top of the group, there is a greater focus on mobility. The idea is to show that collectors are often broken down into major and minor collectors, with the major collectors giving greater emphasis to mobility. The last block are local roads and their primary function is land access.

Functional classification can be applied in planning highway system development, determining the jurisdictional responsibility for particular systems, and in fiscal planning. These applications of functional classification are discussed in "A Guide for Functional Highway Classification." 1


Urban and rural areas have fundamentally different characteristics as to density and types of land use, density of street and highway networks, nature of travel patterns, and the way in which all these elements are related in the definitions of highway function. Consequently, this manual provides for separate classification of urban and rural functional systems.

Experience has shown that extensions of rural arterial and collector routes provide an adequate arterial street network in places of less than 5,000 population. Hence urban classifications as discussed herein are considered in the context of places of 5,000 population or more.

Urban areas are defined in Federal-aid highway law (Section 101 of Title 23, U.S. Code) as follows:

"The term 'urban area' means an urbanized area or, in the case of an urbanized area encompassing more than one State, that part of the urbanized area in each such State, or an urban place as designated by the Bureau of the Census having a population of five thousand or more and not within any urbanized area, within boundaries to be fixed by responsible State and local officials in cooperation with each other, subject to approval by the Secretary. Such boundaries shall, as a minimum, encompass the entire urban place designated by the Bureau of the Census."

For clarity and simplicity this reference manual will use the following terminology, which is consistent with the above definition.

Small urban areas are those urban places, as designated by the Bureau of the Census having a population of five thousand (5,000) or more and not within any urbanized area.

Urbanized areas are designated as such by the Bureau of the Census.

Rural areas comprise the areas outside the boundaries of small urban and urbanized areas, as defined above.


The following pages are devoted to separate descriptions of the characteristics of the basic functional systems and their subsystems for (1) rural areas, (2) urbanized areas, and (3) small urban areas. The primary functional categories used for each of the three area types are presented in Table II-1.

Table II-1 -- The Hierarchy of functional systems

Rural areas Urbanized areas Small Urban areas
Principal arterials
Minor arterial roads
Collector roads
Local roads
Principal arterials
Minor arterial streets
Collector streets
Local streets
Principal arterials
Minor arterial strets
Collector streets
Local streets

Since there is a wide variation in the characteristics and magnitude of service provided by each of these basic functional systems, further stratification of routes in these systems is prescribed to insure greater adaptability for subsequent use. In rural areas, routes on the principal arterial system are subclassified as Interstate and other principal arterials; and routes on the collector road system are subclassified as major collector roads and minor collector roads. In urbanized and small urban areas, the routes on the principal arterial system are subclassified as Interstate, other freeways and expressways, and other principal arterials.

Functional Systems for Rural Areas
Rural roads consist of those facilities that are outside of small urban and urbanized areas, as previously defined. They are classified into four major systems: Principal arterials, minor arterial roads, major and minor collector roads, and local roads.

Rural principal arterial system
The rural principal arterial system consists of a connected rural network of continuous routes having the following characteristics:

  1. Serve corridor movements having trip length and travel density characteristics indicative of substantial statewide or interstate travel.

  2. Serve 2 all, or virtually all, urban areas of 50,000 and over population and a large majority of those with population of 25,000 and over.

  3. Provide an integrated network without stub connections except where unusual geographic or traffic flow conditions dictate otherwise (e.g., international boundary connections and connections to coastal cities).

In the more densely populated States, this system of highway may not include all heavily traveled routes which are multi-lane facilities. It is likely, however, that in the majority of States the principal arterial system will include all existing rural freeways.

The principal arterial system is stratified into the following two subsystems:

Interstate System.--The Interstate System consists of all presently designated routes of the Interstate System.

Other principal arterials.--This system consists of all nonInterstate principal arterials.

Rural minor arterial road system
The rural minor arterial road system should, in conjunction with the principal arterial system, form a rural network having the following characteristics:
  1. Link cities and larger towns3 (and other traffic generators, such as major resort areas, that are capable of attracting travel over similarly long distances) and form an integrated network providing interstate and intercounty service.

  2. Be spaced at such intervals, consistent with population density, so that all developed areas of the State are within a reasonable distance of an arterial highway.

  3. Provide (because of the two characteristics defined immediately above) service to corridors with trip lengths and travel density greater than those predominantly served by rural collector or local systems. Minor arterials therefore constitute routes whose design should be expected to provide for relatively high overall travel speeds, with minimum interference to-through movement.

Rural collector road system
The rural collector routes generally serve travel of primarily intracounty rather than statewide importance and constitute those routes on which (regardless of traffic volume) predominant travel distances are shorter than on arterial routes. Consequently, more moderate speeds may be typical, on the average.

In order to define more clearly the characteristics of rural collectors, this system should be subclassified according to the following criteria:

Major collector roads.--These routes should: (1) Provide service to any county seat not on an arterial route, to the larger towns not directly served by the higher systems, and to other traffic generators of equivalent intracounty importance, such as consolidated schools, shipping points, county parks, important mining and agricultural areas, etc. ; (2) link these places with nearby larger towns or cities, or with routes of higher classification; and (3) serve the more important intracounty travel corridors.

Minor collector roads.--These routes should: (1) Be spaced at intervals, consistent with population density, to collect traffic from local roads and bring all developed areas within a reasonable distance of a collector road; (2) provide service to the remaining smaller communities; and (3) link the locally important traffic generators with their rural hinterland.

Rural local road system

The rural local road system should have the following characteristics: (1) Serve primarily to provide access to adjacent land; and (2) provide service to travel over relatively short distances as compared to collectors or other higher systems. Local roads will, of course, constitute the rural mileage not classified as part of the principal arterial, minor arterial, or collector systems.

Extent of rural systems

The systems criteria above have been expressed primarily in qualitative, rather than quantitative terms. Because of varying geographic conditions (population density, spacing and size of cities, density and pattern of road network) it is not feasible to define uniform nationwide criteria on size of population centers, on trip length and traffic volume, or on spacing of routes, that would apply to all systems in all States. The results of classification studies conducted in many States throughout the country do, however, show considerable consistency in the relative extent of each system, expressed as a percentage of total rural road mileage.

Systems developed using the criteria herein are generally expected, in all States except Alaska and Hawaii, to fall within the percentage ranges shown in Table 11-2. The higher values in Table 11-2 would apply to States which have a less extensive total road network than is typical of States of similar population density. In States having a more extensive total network, the lower values would be expected to apply. The range of percentages for rural collectors is for the total mileage of both major and minor collector roads, and applies to the statewide rural mileage totals; the percentage in any particular county may vary considerably from the statewide average. Areas having an extensive grid pattern of roads will usually have a lesser percentage of collectors than areas wherein geographic conditions have imposed a restricted or less regular pattern of road development.

Table II-2 -- Guidelines on extent of rural functional systems
  Range (percent)
System VMT Miles
Principal arterial system 30-55 2-4
Principal arterial plus minor arterial road system 45-75 6-12*
Collector road system 20-35 20-25
Local road system 5-20 65-75

* With most states falling in the 7-10 percent range.

Functional Systems in Urbanized Areas
The four functional systems for urbanized areas are urban principal arterials, minor arterial streets, collector streets, and local streets. The differences in the nature and intensity of development between rural and urban areas cause these systems to have characteristics that are somewhat different from the correspondingly named rural systems.

Urban principal arterial system
In every urban environment there exists a system of streets and highways which can be identified as unusually significant to the area in which it lies in terms of the nature and composition of travel it serves. In smaller urban areas (under 50,000) these facilities may be very limited in number and extent and their importance may be primarily derived from the service provided to travel passing through the area. In larger urban areas their importance also derives from service to rural oriented traffic, but equally or even more important, from service for major movements within these urbanized areas.

This system of streets and highways is the urban principal arterial system and should serve the major centers of activity of a metropolitan area, the highest traffic volume corridors, and the longest trip desires; and should carry a high proportion of the total urban area travel on a minimum of mileage. The system should be integrated, both internally and between major rural connections.

The principal arterial system should carry the major portion of. trips entering and leaving the urban area, as well as the majority of through movements desiring to bypass the central city. In addition, significant intra-area travel, such as between central business districts and outlying residential areas .. between major inner city communities, or between major suburban centers should be served by this system. Frequently the principal arterial system will carry important intraurban as well as intercity bus routes. Finally, this system in small urban and urbanized areas should provide continuity for all rural arterials which intercept the urban boundary.

Because of the nature of the travel served by the principal arterial system, almost all fully and partially controlled access facilities will be part of this functional system. However, this system is not restricted to controlled access routes. In order to preserve the identification of controlled access facilities, the principal arterial system is stratified as follows: (1) Interstate, (2) other freeways and expressways, and (3) other principal arterials (with no control of access).

The spacing of urban principal arterials will be closely related to the trip-end density characteristics of particular portions of the urban areas. while no firm spacing rule can be established which will apply in all, or even most circumstances, the spacing of principal arterials (in larger urban areas) may vary from less than one mile in the highly developed central business areas to five miles or more in the sparsely developed urban fringes.

For principal arterials, the concept of service to abutting land should be subordinate to the provision of travel service to major traffic movements. It should be noted that only facilities within the "other principal arterial" system are capable of providing any direct access to adjacent land, and such service should be purely incidental to the primary functional responsibility of this system.

Urban minor arterial street system
The minor arterial street system should interconnect with and augment the urban principal arterial system and provide service to trips of moderate length at a somewhat lower level of travel mobility than principal arterials. This system also distributes travel to geographic areas smaller than those identified with the higher system.

The minor arterial street system includes all arterials not classified as a principal and contains facilities that place more emphasis on land access than the higher system, and offer a lower level of traffic mobility. Such facilities may carry local bus routes and provide intra-community continuity, but ideally should not penetrate identifiable neighborhoods. This system should include urban connections to rural collector roads where such connections have not been classified as urban principal arterials.

The spacing of minor arterial streets may vary from 1/8 - 1/2 mile in the central business district to 2 - 3 miles in the suburban fringes, but should normally be not more than 1 mile in fully developed areas.

Urban collector street system
The collector street system provides both land access service and traffic circulation within residential neighborhoods, commercial and industrial areas. It differs from the arterial system in that facilities on the collector system may penetrate residential neighborhoods, distributing trips from the arterials through the area to the ultimate destination. Conversely, the collector street also collects traffic from local streets in residential neighborhoods and channels it into the arterial system. In the central business district, and in other areas of like development and traffic density, the collector system may include the street grid which forms a logical entity for traffic circulation.

Urban local street system
The local street system comprises all facilities not on one of the higher systems. It serves primarily to provide direct access to abutting land and access to the higher order systems. It offers the lowest level of mobility and usually contains no bus routes. Service to through, traffic movement usually is deliberately discouraged.

Extent of mileage and travel on urban systems
Table II-3 contains guideline ranges of travel volume (VMT) and mileage of each of the four functional systems for urbanized areas. Systems developed for each area using the criteria herein will usually fall within the percentage ranges shown.

Table II-3 -- Guidelines on extent of urban functional systems
  Range (percent)
System VMT Miles
Principal arterial system 40-65 5-10
Principal arterial plus minor arterial street systems 65-80 15-25
Collector street system 5-10 5-10
Local street system 10-30 65-80

Functional System for Small Urban Areas
The systems and their characteristics listed for urbanized areas are also generally applicable to small urban areas. The basic difference is that, by nature of their size, many small urban areas will not generate internal travel warranting urban principal arterial service.

Thus the principal arterial system for small urban areas will largely consist of extensions of rural arterial into and through the areas. In many instances, these extensions will be located so as to relieve critical sections of the street system while providing efficient movement of travel around (e.g., bypasses) and through the area. The larger urban areas within this population group, particularly those above 25,000 population, may have major activity centers which warrant principal arterial service in addition to that provided by extensions of rural arterials.

The characteristics for the minor arterial street systems, collector street systems, and local street systems in small urban areas are similar to those for urbanized areas.

Special Urban-Rural Identification
The criteria in this section define urban and rural streets and highways according to their functional character. To assure continuity of the rural arterial systems through urban areas, it is desirable to doubly identify (as indicated below) the urban arterials which form connecting links of the rural arterials. The term "connecting links" means those urban routings which will provide rural-to-rural continuity for the rural arterial systems. A connecting link may traverse the urban area from one boundary to another, or may simply connect to another previously delineated connecting link. (The mileage of any connecting link should not be included more than once.) The necessary continuity may be provided by loop or bypass routes. It is recommended that the identification be made after both the urban and rural functional classifications have been accomplished.

As specified in the systems characteristics in this section, connecting links for the rural principal and minor arterial systems will be on the urban principal arterial system (continuity for the rural Interstate will, of course, be provided by urban Interstate). Connecting links for rural principal arterials should be identified prior to selecting those for minor arterials. The routing of the connecting link for a rural principal arterial should normally be fairly direct, while that for a rural minor arterial may involve some indirection of travel.

The following categories are to be used in identifying these connecting links on the urban principal arterial system:

1. Other freeways and expressways:

connecting links of non-Interstate rural principal arterials

Connecting links of rural minor arterials

Other urban principal arterials:

Connecting links of other rural principal arterials

Connecting links of rural minor arterials

Classification Criteria for Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico
The classification of rural and urban systems in Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico can generally be consistent with the functional system characteristics described in the preceding sections. However, there may be roads on small islands or in other areas that are isolated from the remaining parts of the State or Commonwealth, and none of these roads may meet the criteria for classification as arterial because of the absence of long-distance, through trips. Conversely, there may be undeveloped areas that have very few miles of collector and local roads. Thus, because of the considerably different geographic conditions existing in these areas as compared to the other 48 States, the systems extent for the rural functional classes may vary from that shown in Table II-2. The systems extent for the urban functional classes should be fairly consistent with that shown in Table II-3.


  1. A Guide for Functional Highway Classification, prepared by a joint subcommittee of the American Association of State Highway Officials, the National Association of Counties, and the National Association of County Engineers (1964).
    (Originally footnote 1 on page II-5).

  2. The term "serve" is difficult to define on a national basis since it varies according to the size of the urban area, the functional system under consideration, and the effects of natural barriers where they exist. As a guide the rural principal arterial system may be considered to "serve" an urban area if the system either penetrates the urban boundary, or comes within 10 miles of the center of the place and is within 20 minutes travel time (offpeak periods) of the center of the place via a minor arterial highway. The rural minor arterial road system "serves" an urban area if the system either penetrates or comes within 2 miles of the urban boundary.
    (Originally footnote 1 on page II-9).

  3. The definition of a "large" town, in terms of population, cannot be arbitrarily determined in such a way as will fit all States. It can be determined in a given State during the classification process by building the system "from the top down," in terms of size of places served, and evaluating successive system increments on a diminishing returns basis, in terms of population service or traffic service. This is discussed in greater detail in Section III.
    (Originally footnote 2 on page II-9).

Updated: 1/31/2017
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000