National/World News

The Asphalt Rebellion

Part I: Communities Fight Back

by Alan Ehrenhalt


This is the cover story of Governing magazine's 10th Anniversary Issue (October, 1997). The article does a masterful job of addressing quality of life and transportation decisions and goes to the heart of the sustainable transportation question. Governing is a highly respected journal published by Congressional Quarterly, Inc.


Posted 18 December 1997

Governing Magazine

For decades, traffic engineers have been designing wider, straighter, faster roads. Now, some communities are challenging that approach.

The asphalt rebellion seems to begin, in just about every state, at a bridge. It is a country bridge: lightly traveled, decades old and starting to fall apart. The local government wants a few modest repairs. The state transportation department comes in, takes a look and declares that the only way to save the bridge is to tear it down and build something much bigger and costlier in its place. A fight ensues. By the time it is over, a mild-mannered mayor or council member or selectman has turned into a rebel.

It happened two years ago at Poverty Hollow, just outside Redding, Connecticut, where there is a stone arch bridge on a rural road with woods, ponds and lily pads on one side and 18th-century barns and fields on the other. The bridge is 17 feet wide. The state offered to fix it, but said that in order to be made safe, it had to be replaced by a brand new 28-foot-wide structure made of steel and concrete. Fortunately, the department said, there was good news: $350,000 in state and federal money was available to finance the project.
Common sense vs "the cookie cutter." But it turned out that the Redding board of selectmen had some news for the highway engineers. They didn't want the money. They didn't want the project. If they had to destroy the bridge in order to save it, they would take their chances with it as it was--or spend their own money shoring it up. "It's a sad commentary on our system," Redding First Selectman Henry Bielawa wrote in an open letter mailed statewide, "when historic preservation, neighborhood esthetics and common sense are displaced by cookie-cutter design requirements."
Overbuilt Concrete Monstrosities

Around the time of the incident at Poverty Hollow, a similar debate was going on in Guilford, Connecticut, and beyond the state border, in Chester, Vermont. Both of those towns ultimately decided that a big wad of federal money--almost $1 million in Guilford's case--wasn't worth the price of accepting an overbuilt concrete monstrosity on a country road. Both said no and did the job with local money.

Meanwhile, unknown to most of the activists in New England, a different crop of road rebels was playing out an almost identical scenario in Virginia, where they organized as the "Snickersville Turnpike Association" to block their state from bulldozing a 19th-century stone arch bridge. The only real difference was the result: The Snickersville rebels didn't have to reject any money. The state gave in and just widened the old bridge by three feet at its narrowest point.
A full-fledged protest movement. The asphalt rebellion ignited in many different places at virtually the same time. There is no Rosa Parks of highway design. But during the past year or so, it has become a full-fledged protest movement, and it is spreading beyond New England, beyond the narrow question of bridge safety, beyond country roads and into the much broader subject of how streets and highways are designed and built in America and the way those decisions affect communities and individual lives.
It has grown into a rebellion against an entire half-century of American engineering ideology, and against an obscure but immensely important book: A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, more commonly referred to as the AASHTO Green Book. When traffic engineers propose the replacement of an old stone bridge with a pile of concrete; when they declare that a city street must be doubled in width to be made safe; when they argue that a two-lane country road be converted to a four-lane highway, they are doing it because, at least in their view, the AASHTO Green Book dictates that it be done.
The Guideline That Became a Dictator

AASHTO is the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. For the past 43 years, it has been compiling, publishing and revising its 1,044-page lime-colored masterwork, packed with numbers, equations and diagrams explaining to engineers how to make American roads and bridges efficient and safe. Until 1991, federal law required that any road built with the help of federal funds be built in accordance with Green Book standards. Now, there is no such requirement. But the book's status as virtually sacred text in the engineering profession has kept it just about as influential as ever at the state level. "It's basically the foundation for all the engineering design that goes into highways," says Thomas R. Warne, Utah's transportation director and chairman of the AASHTO Design Committee.

Among those who hate it, the Green Book has a reputation it doesn't entirely deserve. The truth is, it mostly offers advice about what sorts of construction are safest in particular situations. It never has described its language as anything more than guidelines. During the decades when it was being applied to construction of the Interstate Highway System, conservative Green Book policies undoubtedly saved thousands of American lives. It is largely in the post-Interstate era of the 1990s that the engineering profession's Green Book devotion has led state transportation officials into some all-but-indefensible decisions--and set the Asphalt Rebellion in motion. "People want to be safe," says one of the activists, First Selectman Alan Chapin of Washington, Connecticut, "but they don't want to take a country bridge and blow it up."
Does Safety Always Mean "Fast and Wide?"

The formulas and equations of the Green Book make it virtually impenetrable to the lay reader, but the principles that emerge from it are remarkably simple. The first one is that safety trumps all other considerations--history, aesthetics, community habits, community values. "The design values given within this text," the Green Book states flatly, "have safety as their primary objective."

The second principle is that in order to be safe, a road or bridge must accommodate drivers traveling at high speeds, even speeds considerably in excess of the legal limit. AASHTO and most state highway departments traditionally have used what is known as the "85th percentile" standard. They calculate how fast the 15th fastest driver out of every 100 on a highway is traveling, and they commit to make that driver's trip free of danger. "The AASHTO standards," says James Lighthizer, a former Maryland transportation director and a Green Book critic, "assume that everyone on the road is a drunk speeding along without a seatbelt."
The third principle is that safety at high speeds requires width. And so streets, roads and bridges all become wider to accommodate the very fastest drivers. In the early 20th century, most urban streets and roadways in America were built between 18 and 24 feet wide. By the 1960s, when most of the new pavement was being laid in suburban subdivisions, the width was nearly double that--32 to 34 feet.
Even AASHTO's fiercest critics don't dispute the Green Book's technical accuracy. When it proclaims that a given road needs to be 30 feet wide to accommodate cars traveling at 60 miles an hour, it knows what it is talking about. The question raised by the Asphalt Rebels is why those speeds have to be accommodated in the first place.
Wide means ugly. In the end, many of the rebels come to realize that width is an all-important idea, not only in designing roads but also in creating communities. Within a certain range of highway width, many things are possible: walkable pedestrian boulevards, Main Street-style commercial corridors, residential streets where neighbors stop and talk to each other on the sidewalk. Beyond that range, none of those things are possible. "Once you have a six-lane facility," says Walter Kulash, a maverick traffic engineer who supports the rebellion, "it is difficult to make it into anything but an ugly monster."
And so the Asphalt Rebellion has become, in the simplest terms, a revolt against speed and width, and against the doctrine that safety outweighs all other considerations. It is a revolt that is going on largely in the shadows of ISTEA, the massive federal transportation law, which is currently being rewritten in Congress. Most media coverage of transportation issues is focused on ISTEA, and on its heavily lobbied arguments about the future distribution of federal highway money.
The states change their minds. ISTEA is, in fact, crucial. But while it is being debated, equally crucial debates are quietly taking place over highway design. However, Congress ultimately chooses to apportion its transportation money, it is the states and localities that ultimately will decide how the roads built and rebuilt with that money are going to look. And that is a matter about which they are beginning to change their minds.
In the past year, Vermont has enacted a law that all but invites its transportation department to depart from AASHTO standards in road-building. Connecticut has passed a law relaxing the rules on bridges. Philadelphia is seeking to rewrite the AASHTO guidelines in urban development neighborhoods.
Phoenix passed a city ordinance this spring that explicitly offers developers the option of building narrower streets in future residential developments. "Sometimes we're building things wrong," the deputy city manager explained. "We're creating neighborhoods we have to go back and fix." Up until now, all residential streets in Phoenix have had to be at least 32 feet wide. The new rules reduce the minimum to 28. Eugene, Oregon, which used to require 28 feet, is now allowing some to be as narrow as 20 feet.
Other cities are doing something even more difficult: taking streets and highways that were made into massive slabs of pavement in the Green Book era and retrofitting them. Wellesley, Massachusetts, confronted with a plan to widen heavily traveled Route 16 through the center of town, decided to narrow it, and widened the sidewalks instead. In West Palm Beach, Florida, six lanes of U.S. 1 are being converted into two separate two-lane roads. The sister cities of Riverside and San Bernardino, California, among the last places where one might expect to find anti-AASHTO sentiment, have both reduced their principal downtown streets from four lanes to two and are switching from parallel to diagonal parking to make them even narrower.
Still a guerrilla movement. It is too fragmentary to be a revolution, and yet many of the people involved in it can't resist the temptation to talk in revolutionary terms. "I just see a percolation," says Alan Chapin, the Washington, Connecticut, selectman who lobbied for passage of his state's new law. "It's spreading broader and broader and broader as more local governments hear about these things. This is still a guerrilla movement. The institutional resistance is tremendous. It will take years before this becomes standard procedure. But at the neighborhood level, this has tremendous appeal. And it will spread and grow."
A few months ago, Chapin traveled across the border to Providence, Rhode Island, to testify on the situation in Connecticut. "I thought I would be the only person with this gripe," Chapin recalls. Instead, he found road rebels from all over New England and the East Coast who wanted to talk strategy.
"...just too much pavement." "The problem is everywhere," says Barton D. Russell, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. "The discontent is everywhere. There's just too much pavement. It's not what anybody wants."
One can, of course, dismiss those comments as the hyperbolae of a few grassroots activists who blocked a project or two and now have developed grandiose dreams. There is, undoubtedly, a fair amount of wishful thinking in the Asphalt Rebellion. On the other hand, events seem to be moving in its direction, even far beyond the grassroots.
A Local Champion Arises

Early this summer, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Transportation Engineers issued its own manifesto of street design guidelines. At 43 pages, it is hardly a rival to the Green Book. But ITE is sort of a rival to AASHTO. ITE is a broader-based organization whose 14,000 members include not only state and local traffic engineers but also a variety of private consultants and planners, many of them more receptive to changing entrenched practices than most of the highway-building establishment.

For traditional neighborhoods. The new ITE manual doesn't set out to pick a fight with AASHTO, and, indeed, it is aimed specifically at what it calls "traditional neighborhood development." But it is difficult not to read it, at the very least, as a challenge. "A street," it proclaims, "should be no wider than the minimum width needed to accommodate the usual vehicular mix that street will serve." It defines "traditional" in such a loose way that the guidelines could be applied to virtually any facility short of a major arterial highway. And it was written, says design consultant Frank Spielberg, chairman of the committee that produced it, for the express purpose of giving engineers a tangible and credible alternative to the AASHTO way. "If our members have only the old standards," says Spielberg, "that's what they have to go by."
The FEDS Go Flexible

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, something even more unusual has been happening. The Federal Highway Administration, more or less with the help of AASHTO itself, has prepared a companion volume to the Green Book, aimed at sprucing it up for the urban policy complexities of the new era. At one point, in fact, the volume was actually called a Companion Guide to the Green Book. AASHTO ultimately decided that was a little more companionship than it wanted. "The Federal Highway Administration does not own the rights to the Green Book," says AASHTO's Warne. "They can't write an addendum to a book they didn't publish." So now, it is being called Flexibility in Highway Design, and AASHTO has not endorsed it in any official way.

A road can be out of context. Still, AASHTO has been involved with the project all the way through, and that in itself is pretty remarkable, considering some of the things the book says. "If highway designers are not aware of opportunities to use their creative abilities," it proclaims right in the forward, "the standard of conservative use of the Green Book criteria and related state standards, along with a lack of full consideration of community values, can cause a road to be out of context with its surroundings."
None of that was written accidentally. "It's giving sanction to new ways of doing things," explains John Horsley, a deputy assistant U.S. transportation secretary, who has been helping to oversee the project. "The most important message," he says, "is that it's OK not to do the tried and true wider, straighter, faster, flatter."
Stop Mowing Everything Down!

Can AASHTO really swallow that? Maybe, says James Byrnes, Connecticut's chief highway engineer and chairman of the AASHTO task force created to evaluate the new book. In Byrnes' view, neither the book nor the Asphalt Rebellion itself is anything for highway designers to be afraid of. "It's not useful for designers to act like automatons," Byrnes says, sounding a bit like a reformer himself. "The public doesn't want every road to be wide, straight and mow everything down. Those days are long over."

Whether they really are over remains to be seen. Next May, at a meeting in Maryland, AASHTO is scheduled to debate the whole issue of the new guide and possibly take a vote on endorsing it. If AASHTO does agree to endorse the effort, with its implicit criticisms of traditional practice, it will be the strongest possible evidence that the rebellion has come further than its promoters ever could have imagined just a couple of years ago.
Even if next year's meeting does produce a kinder, gentler AASHTO, however, the road to significant change in the American streetscape is still paved with huge obstacles.
Governing Web Site Reprinted with permission from Governing magazine. Congressional Quarterly, Inc., copyright 1997


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