Where are Streets Going?

Streets are public places. Great streets are great for businesses. Streets can be changed. These statements underpin the Urban Street Design Guide, the definitive toolkit for reprogramming city streets in the United States to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. Produced by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the Urban Street Design Guide is a recognition that US cities are growing, demographics and transportation preferences are changing, and streets—as public spaces for gathering and activity, as safe corridors for walking and cycling at any age, as the foundation of a healthy local economy, and as examples of environmental stewardship—are currently ill-equipped to meet these realities. In essence, streets are an undervalued asset, where modest investments—with the right design—can unlock benefits that go beyond simply moving the most vehicles during rush hour. But what are these benefits, how are they being quantified, and how are cities using this information to inform their transportation investment decisions?

Demographic and Transportation Trends

Urban street design is a nexus of complex social and economic factors occurring in the US. Population growth in urban areas (12.1 percent) outpaced national population growth (9.7 percent) between 2000 and 2010. Locally, urban migration has resulted in a surge in population in many of the country’s largest cities, reversing a decades-long trend of population decline after World War II. And the Brookings Institution has noted that between 2011 and 2012, on average, central cities of large metropolitan areas (i.e., populations exceeding one million) are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time since the 1920s (Box 1)

Baby boomers (identified as those born between 1946 and 1964) and Millennials (persons born between the early 1980s and early 2000s) are primarily fueling this growth. At the same time, vehicle usage continues to decline. Urban living allows empty nesters and baby boomers to downsize and more easily age in place by reducing or even eliminating the need to drive. Meanwhile, Millennials continue to show a preference for urban, car-free living.

Nationally, such trends impact how much Americans use the transportation system. Total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have leveled off since 2004, while percapita VMT peaked in 2004 and fell 7.4 percent by 2012 despite a growing economy;1 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates for 2013 show yet another annual decline in per-capita VMT. Meanwhile, total transit ridership grew to 10.7 billion trips in 2013, the highest level since 1956. Though per-capita transit ridership has remained level since the mid-1970s, many metropolitan areas are experiencing solid ridership growth, most notably in the West, particularly in Los Angeles, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Cycling continues to grow rapidly, reaching 6.1 percent of commuters in Portland, Oregon, in 2012 and more than four percent of commuters in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Each year new bicycle sharing systems sprout up, while existing systems continue to expand beyond the urban core into adjacent neighborhoods and towns via new docking stations and more bicycles.

Locally, these shifts can result in fewer registered drivers and vehicles (e.g., vehicle registration in Boston declined by 14 percent, or 50,000 vehicles, in the last five years, while population is growing at a pace not seen since the early 20th century). Even driver’s license attainment for young adults aged 16 to 24 is at its lowest level since the 1960s.2

The Benefits of Designing for Everyone

The greater demand for transit, cycling, and walking requires that cities provide safe and inviting streets for everyone. As more forms of transportation compete for space in congested urban environments with fixed street widths, conflicts are inevitable. Solutions often require reprogramming space once dedicated to motor vehicle travel and parking into wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, or other streetscape enhancements. As the Urban Street Design Guide reminds us, “great streets are great for businesses” because people and community are great for businesses. More and more evidence shows that designing streets to better and more safely accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and transit correlates to more business activity, despite a reduction in vehicle capacity.

Source: New York City Department of Transportation (Creative Commons)

New York City Department of Transportation’s (NYCDOT) Measuring the Street: New Metrics for 21st Century Streets provides many examples. After redesigning 8th Avenue and 9th Avenue in Manhattan with protected bike lanes, pedestrian safety islands, and modified signal phasing, NYCDOT found that injuries for all transportation modes declined by 35 to 58 percent (8th and 9th Avenue, respectively) and retail sales for adjacent local businesses increased by 49 percent (compared to a three-percent increase borough-wide). At Manhattan’s Union Square, NYCDOT found that expanding public space for pedestrians and cyclists reduced speeding, injuries, and nearby commercial vacancies.

On the West Coast, a 2011 study by Portland State University found that, on average, cyclists and pedestrians spent more per month than motorists at the same businesses because they shopped more frequently, even though motorists spent more per trip.3 In San Francisco, two thirds of businesses along Valencia Street reported increased sales after a road diet eliminated two vehicle lanes and installed bike lanes and wider sidewalks.2

Beyond improved business activity, safer streets are healthier streets. The report, Protected Bike Lanes Mean Business, relates that the bicycle parts and accessories distributor, Quality Bicycle Products, observed a 4.4-percent reduction in health care costs after offering employee incentives to promote cycling to their Bloomington, Minnesota office (a 24.6-percent increase was observed nationwide in the same timeframe). Also, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, cyclist commuters use nearly one-third fewer sick days and have approximately 50 percent lower health costs.

Overall, streets that safely accommodate all users are more sustainable: they contribute to improved health, can be better for businesses’ bottom lines, more easily enable the transition to environmentally friendly transportation modes, and are more equitable because, compared to purchasing and maintaining an automobile, costs are significantly lower.

Funding is Tight, So Quantify and Report Successes

Despite these enticing benefits, reprogramming urban street space is easier said than done. Beyond the political difficulties of persuading a skeptical public on changes to business as usual, a slow recovery from the Great Recession means that cities, states, and MPOs must often do more with less. Funding may fall short of delivering enough revenue to both maintain existing transportation assets and invest in new infrastructure. At the federal level, MAP-21 has made it more difficult for bicycle and pedestrian projects to receive funding. The 2012 surface transportation reauthorization both reduced the total funding levels for “transportation alternatives” (i.e., cycling and walking) and consolidated multiple transportation programs—transportation enhancements, recreational trails, Safe Routes to School, and others—into one. The US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) initial proposal for reauthorization, the GROW AMERICA Act, does not return this program to pre-MAP-21 funding levels; however, transit would account for a larger share of overall funding. The growing desire to redesign streets for everyone is being met with the difficult reality of limited funding and the strange new world of open competition. Projects compete with one another for funds through discretionary programs like the USDOT’s annual TIGER program, which would become permanent under the GROW AMERCA Act, or even the non-profit People for Bike’s biennial Green Lane Project.


Measuring and demonstrating success is becoming a more common strategy to obtain funding. Some cities have responded to these challenges by reprogramming streets as pilot projects using low-cost materials (e.g., striping and temporary bollards) and then later implementing more permanent changes as funding becomes available. Measuring performance is the key component to this strategy. The analyses of performance and benefits during this interim phase are not only critical to final design, which may be tweaked based on findings and impacts during the pilot period, but also increase the likelihood of available funding in the future, as funding programs are increasingly tied to performance. Recording, evaluating, and reporting the benefits of these projects to public and local decision makers are perhaps just as important as building them in the first place.

Reprogramming streets, especially if working within existing curb lines, are certainly not the most capital-intensive transportation projects. But in an age of tight budgets, governments and organizations at all levels are looking to these modest investments for their outsized benefits and to meet the trends of changing demographics and transportation preferences. Cities have many choices of where and how to invest (after all, streets account for a majority of total public space in urban areas) and with the Urban Street Design Guide emboldening cities to make these  investments, a thorough evaluation of observed or anticipated performance is needed to strategically choose projects that best benefit people, not just automobiles.


    1. Moving Off the Road (2013). US Public Interest Research Group.
    2. Protected Bike lanes Mean Business (2014). PeopleForBikes and the Alliance for BIking & Walking.

Image Header Source: Timothy Carroll (Creative Commons)