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Highway Functional Classification Concepts, Criteria and Procedures

Section 2. Concepts

2.1 Introduction

This section of the guidance document presents the concepts underlying the functional classification of roadways. It first introduces the two primary transportation functions of roadways, namely mobility and access, and describes where different categories of roadways fall within a continuum of mobility-access. In addition to mobility and access, other factors that can help determine the proper category to which a particular roadway belongs - such as trip length, speed limit, volume, and vehicle mix - are discussed in this section.

While Arterials, Collectors and Locals span the full range of roadway functions, the Federal functional classification scheme uses additional classification categories to describe these functions more precisely. Distinctions between access-controlled and full-access roadways; the urban and rural development pattern; and subtleties between "major" and "minor" sub-classifications are key considerations when determining the Federal functional classification category to which a particular roadway belongs. The process of determining the correct functional classification of a particular roadway is as much art as it is science. Therefore, a real-world example is presented to help make the discussion of functional classification more readily understood.

2.2 Functional Classification Concepts

The flow of traffic throughout a roadway network is similar to the flow of blood through the human circulatory system or the trunk and branch system of a tree. The units moving through the system (blood cells, nutrients, vehicles, etc.) move through progressively smaller network elements as they approach their destination.

Most travel occurs through a network of interdependent roadways, with each roadway segment moving traffic through the system towards destinations. The concept of functional classification defines the role that a particular roadway segment plays in serving this flow of traffic through the network. Roadways are assigned to one of several possible functional classifications within a hierarchy according to the character of travel service each roadway provides. Planners and engineers use this hierarchy of roadways to properly channel transportation movements through a highway network efficiently and cost effectively.

2.2.1 Access versus Mobility

Roadways serve two primary travel needs: access to/egress from specific locations and travel mobility. While these two functions lie at opposite ends of the continuum of roadway function, most roads provide some combination of each.

Figure 2-1: Aerial View of the Eisenhower (and Johnson) Tunnels along I-70, west of Denver, CO

Aerial View of the Eisenhower (and Johnson) Tunnels along I-70, west of Denver, CO. This figure is a satellite image of the land above the tunnel. A line superimposed over the image shows the alignment of the tunnel.

Source: Google Earth Pro, June 27, 2012

Figure 2-2: View from inside the Eisenhower Tunnel

Photograph of road within a suburban subdivision to illustrate the land use access that local roadways provide.

Source: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 generic license; Benjamin Clark

These two roles can be best understood by examining two extreme examples (Figure 2-1 and Figure 2-2).

First, consider the Eisenhower Tunnel west of Denver, CO. Located along Interstate 70, the Eisenhower Tunnel runs under the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains and is one of the longest tunnels in the United States. Motorists that travel through the tunnel are en route to a distant location and are using the roadway completely to serve their "mobility" needs. There is no location that is immediately "accessible" to the roadway.

Next, consider the example of Eisenhower Court in North Platte, NE (Figure 2-3). This roadway is travelled almost exclusively by the individuals that live along the roadway. Hence, the roadway entirely provides "accessibility" and offers almost nothing in terms of mobility.

Figure 2-3: Aerial View of Eisenhower Court, North Platte, NE

Photograph of road within a suburban subdivision to illustrate the land use access that local roadways provide.

Source: Google Earth Pro, June 27, 2012

Figure 2-4 depicts the neighborhood around Eisenhower Street in Carrollton, TX. This roadway serves both mobility needs (the residents that live along the side streets that intersect Eisenhower Street use it for some level of north/south mobility) and land access needs (there are both residential and commercial properties located along the roadway).

Figure 2-4: Aerial View of Eisenhower Street in Carrollton, TX

Photograph of an Other Principal Arterial roadway that provides both access to land uses and mobility for through travel.

Source: Google Earth Pro, June 28, 2012

For nomenclature purposes, those roadways that provide a high level of mobility are called "Arterials"; those that provide a high level of accessibility are called "Locals"; and those that provide a more balanced blend of mobility and access are called "Collectors."

The relationship between mobility and land access is illustrated in Figure 2-5. Arterials provide mostly mobility; Locals provide mostly land access; and Collectors strike a balance between the two. Context Sensitivity and Livability form the environment through which Mobility and Access should be considered. These concepts are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 5.

Figure 2-5 Illustration of Access-Mobility DynamicThis figure is an illustration of a graph that shows the continuum of access and mobility by functional classification. Local roadways provide higher access and lower mobility and interstate facilities provide lower access and higher mobility. Other roadways fall in between Locals and Intestates in terms of access and mobility.

Source: FHWA

While most roadways offer both "access to property" and "travel mobility" services, it is the roadway's primary purpose that defines the classification category to which a given roadway belongs.[2]

2.3 Other Important Factors Related to Functional Classification

A route is a linear path of connected roadway segments, all with the same functional classification designation. For example, the roadways along a given Arterial route may - and often do - comprise multiple named roadways or state numbered facilities. Similarly, different segments of a given named roadway, or even more likely a given state numbered route, may belong to different functional classification categories, depending on the character of travel service that each segment provides. In the example to the right, the minor Arterial "route" consists of a portion of Tyler Street and a portion of Dalton Avenue (shown in green). East of Dalton Avenue, Tyler Street (shown in brown) is a Minor Collector.

The distinction between "mobility and accessibility" is important in assigning functional classifications to roadways. There are a few additional factors to consider, and these are discussed here.

Efficiency of Travel: Trip makers will typically seek out roadways that allow them to travel to their destinations with as little delay as possible and by the shortest travel time. Arterial roadways provide this kind of service, often in the form of fully or partially controlled access highways, with no or very few intersecting roadways to hinder traffic flow. Therefore, a high percentage of the length of a long-distance trip will be made on Arterials. In contrast, travelers making shorter trips tend to use Local and/or Collector roadways for a much higher proportion of the trip length than Arterial roads.

Figure 2-6: Collector Example

Map of a small area of roadway network that shows how Collector roads connect Local roads to Arterial roads.

Source: CDM Smith

Collectors: As their name implies, Collectors "collect" traffic from Local Roads and connect traffic to Arterial roadways. Collector routes are typically shorter than Arterial routes but longer than Local Roads. Collectors often provide traffic circulation within residential neighborhoods as well as commercial, industrial or civic districts (see Figure 2-6).

Access Points: Arterials primarily serve long-distance travel and are typically designed as either access controlled or partially access controlled facilities with limited locations at which vehicles can enter or exit the roadway (typically via on- or off-ramps). In instances where limited or partial access control is not provided, signalized intersections are used to control traffic flow, with the Arterial given the majority of the green time.

Figure 2-7: Example of Access Points

Illustration of 2 areas: one is a typical arterial with many driveways for accessing commercial development, and the second shows a consolidation of the driveways into a single driveway. This is an example of access management.

Source Ohio, DOT

In growing urban areas, Arterial roadways often experience an ever-increasing number of driveway access points. This high degree of accessibility decreases mobility. To address this issue and restore the carrying capacity of through traffic on these roadways, transportation agencies apply access management principles, such as driveway consolidation and median installations (see Figure 2-7).

In contrast, roadways classified as "Local" provide direct access to multiple properties.

Speed Limit: In general, there is a relationship between posted speed limits and functional classification. Arterials typically have higher posted speed limits as vehicles encounter few or no at-grade intersections. The absence of cross-traffic and driveways allows for higher rates of speed, which provides mobility, especially for long-distance travel. In contrast, because their primary role is to provide access, Locals are lined with intersecting access points in the form of driveways, intersecting roadways, cross walks and transfer points for buses and other modes. Due to the frequency of traffic turns, speed limits are kept low to promote safe traffic operations. Speed limits on any non-access controlled roadways are also influenced by the mix of vehicles and modes that use them.

Route Spacing: Directly related to the concept of channelization of traffic throughout a network is the concept of distance (or spacing) between routes. For a variety of reasons, it is not feasible to provide Arterial facilities to accommodate every possible trip in the most direct manner possible or in the shortest amount of time. Ideally, regular and logical spacing between routes of different classifications exists. Arterials are typically spaced at greater intervals than Collectors, which are spaced at much greater intervals than Locals. This spacing varies considerably for different areas; in densely populated urban areas, spacing of all routes types is smaller and generally more consistent than the spacing in sparsely developed rural areas. Geographic barriers greatly influence the layout and spacing of roadways.

When determining the functional classification of a given roadway, no single factor should be considered alone. For example, US 290 runs through the heart of Giddings, TX. Within the city, the roadway has many intersecting roadways, provides direct access to a number of densely developed commercial and residential properties and has speed limits as low as 35 mph. However, because the roadway is one of the two most direct routes of travel between Austin and Houston and a large percentage of its traffic consists of longer distance trips, the roadway is best classified as an Arterial.

Usage (Annual Average Daily Traffic [AADT] Volumes and Vehicle Miles of Travel [VMT]): Arterials serve a high share of longer distance trips and daily vehicle miles of travel. In rural areas, Arterials typically account for approximately half of the daily vehicle miles of travel; in urban areas, this percentage is often higher. Collectors account for the next largest percentage of travel. Urban Area Collectors account for somewhat less (5 to 15 percent), while the percentage for Rural Area Collectors is typically in the 20 to 30 percent range. Lastly, by definition, Local Roads in rural areas typically serve very low density, dispersed developments with relatively low traffic volume. In contrast, the Urban Local Road network, with higher roadway centerline miles and higher density spacing, serves denser land uses and therefore accounts for a larger proportion of travel than its rural counterpart.

While there is a general relationship between the functional classification of a roadway and its annual average daily traffic volume, two roads that carry the same traffic volume may actually serve very different purposes and therefore have different functional classifications. Conversely, two roadways in different parts of a State may have the same functional classification but carry very different traffic volumes. This is particularly applicable among urban areas with very different populations - an Arterial within a remote city with a population of 50,000 is likely to have a much lower traffic volume than an Arterial within a city of 1 million people.

Traffic volumes, however, can come into play when determining the proper functional classification of a roadway "on the border" of a functional classification group (for example, trying to determine whether a roadway should be classified as a Collector or Local). Furthermore, AADT can often be used as a "tie-breaker" when trying to determine which of two (or more) similar and roughly parallel roadways should be classified with a higher (or lower) classification than the other. For example, suppose that two parallel roadways appear to serve the function of a Collector. Classifying both of them as a Collector could lead to undesirable redundancy in the functional classification network. All other things being equal, the roadway with the higher AADT would generally be given the Collector classification, while its companion would be given a Local classification (Figure 2-8).

Figure 2-8: Functional Classification Map of Giddings, TX and Surrounding Unincorporated Territory

Functional Classification Map of Giddings, TX and Surrounding Unincorporated Territory. This figure presents a Texas DOT map of the roadway system in Giddings, Texas and the major roadways leading into the city. Each roadway is assigned a color based on its functional classification.
High Resolution

Source: Texas DOT, Transportation Planning and Programming Division, Data Analysis, Mapping and Reporting Branch, September 16, 2008

Exceptions to the "connectivity" guideline exist. There are locations where an Arterial can "dead end" and not connect to another Arterial. A common example is when an Arterial terminates at a regionally significant land use (such as an airport or military installation). Another example is a Collector that serves a major residential community and, for topological or other constraining reasons, does not connect at one end to another similarly or higher classified roadway. Many other examples can also be found within coastal communities. Wings Neck Road in Bourne, MA (Figure 2-10) is a good example. Other obvious examples are Interstate spur routes (the highest type of Arterial, to be discussed in the following section) that terminate at a city street in the downtown of an urban area.

Number of Travel Lanes: Roadways are designed and constructed according to their expected function. If a roadway is expected to function as an Arterial, it is designed for high capacity, with multiple travel lanes. In general, Arterials are more likely to have a greater number of travel lanes than Collectors, and Collectors are more likely to have a greater number of travel lanes than Locals. It should also be noted that the relationship between functional classification and number of lanes is stronger in urban areas than it is in rural areas.

Regional and Statewide Significance: Highly significant roadways connect large activity centers and carry longer-distance travel between and through regions and States. Arterials carry the vast majority of trips that travel through a given State, while Local Roads do not easily facilitate statewide travel.

Table 2-1 summarizes the relationship between the factors previously described and the three broad categories of functional classification.

Table 2-1: Relationship between Functional Classification and Travel Characteristics

Functional Classification

Distance Served (and Length of Route)

Access Points

Speed Limit

Distance between Routes

Usage (AADT and DVMT)


Number of Travel Lanes

























2.4 System Continuity

Because the roadway system is an interconnected network of facilities channeling traffic in both directions from Arterials to Collectors, then to Locals and back again, the concept of continuity of routes is important to recognize. A basic tenet of the functional classification network is continuity - a roadway of a higher classification should not connect to a single roadway of a lower classification.[3] Generally speaking, Arterials should only connect to other Arterials. However, there are exceptions to this guideline. Arterials can end or link to very large regional traffic generators or can connect to multiple parallel roads of lower functional classification that, together, provide the same function and capacity as an Arterial.

In Figure 2-9, the Arterials (represented by black lines) only connect to other Arterials. Collectors (represented by the red lines), only connect to Arterials or other Collectors. Lastly, Local Roads (represented by the green lines) can connect to any type of roadway.

Exceptions to the "connectivity" guideline exist. A Collector can serve a major residential community and - for topological or other constraining reasons -not connect at one end to another similar or higher classified roadway. Other examples can also be found, especially within coastal communities. Wings Neck Road in Bourne, MA (Figure 2-10) is a good example. Figure 2-11 is an example of an Interstate spur terminating at a city street in Holyoke, MA.

Figure 2-9: Schematic Illustrating the Concept of Continuity This figure illustrates how roadways should be connected, ideally. The Arterials only connect to other Arterials. Collectors only terminate at Arterials or other Collectors. Lastly, Local Roads can terminate at any type of roadway.

Source: CDM Smith

Figure 2-10: Example of an Exception to the Connectivity Guidelines Wings Neck Road, Bourne, MA

Map of a Collector on a peninsula connecting to a Local roadway on the main body of land. This shows that a roadway does not always connect at one end to another similar or higher classified roadway.

Source: MassDOT, Office of Transportation Planning, Functional Classification Map

Figure 2-11: Example of an Interstate Spur Terminating at a City Street in Holyoke, MA

This figure also shows that a roadway does not always connect at one end to another similar or higher classified roadway.

Source: Google Earth Pro, June 29, 2012

Updated: 10/20/2015
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