National Complete Streets Coalition

Reviewing and Updating Design Guidance

In many agencies, the street design manual is the go-to reference for all transportation projects. If it is not supportive of flexible, context-sensitive, and multi-modal approaches, it can be the largest barrier a community faces. A flexible manual can empower planners and engineers to develop design solutions that balance the needs of many users and support the surrounding neighborhood. Changes to the subdivision codes that apply to private development are also necessary to ensure that all new roadways and planned developments are aligned with the community’s Complete Streets goals.

A number of agencies have undertaken a complete rewrite of their manuals, usually accompanied by developing new procedures and producing training to staff. The most innovative new manuals go beyond cross-sections to create new ways to tackle the connection between land use and transportation needs. These documents create new street typologies that provide greater nuance than is available through the traditional functional classification system, which defines roads exclusively by their function for automobiles. However, design manual re-writes can be expensive and time-consuming, and they still may not be enough to change the everyday workings of an agency.

Some places do not have their own design manuals, preferring to use a variety of national or state resources. By referring to outside guidance, these communities do not need to use significant resources to stay up on best practices and the latest design approaches. Instead, they opt to adapt or adopt the latest resources that best reflect their needs. Even in communities with their own design manuals, transportation staff will refer to national or state resources in addition to their own. Project-based design decisions can also be made through collaborative design charrettes, temporary installations, or opportune pilot projects.

Possible Activities

  • Create new design guidelines, either as:
    • Entirely new document, or
    • A series of rules or recommended practices to augment existing guidance.
  • Adopt or direct use of new standards, including the latest versions of:
    • AASHTO: A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (“Green Book”),
    • AASHTO: Guide for Planning, Designing, and Operating Pedestrian Facilities,
    • AASHTO: Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities,
    • FHWA: Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide
    • ITE: Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach,
    • NACTO: Urban Street Design Guide,
    • NACTO: Urban Bikeway Design Guide,
    • US Access Board: Public Right-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines, and/or
    • 2010 Highway Capacity Manual.
  • Update street design standards that apply to:
    • Private developers,
    • City-initiated projects, and
    • Contractors working in the right-of-way via permits.
  • Provide relevant updates to:
    • Land use standards and zoning codes,
    • Subdivision code,
    • Motor vehicle parking policies,
    • Bicycle parking policies,
    • Traffic calming,
    • Streetscape,
    • Transit and station-area plans, and/or
    • Recreation and parks maintenance plans for roads, sidewalks, medians, etc.
  • Collaborate across departments to incorporate Complete Streets design guidance into utilities, planning, public transit, and/or other agencies dealing with roads.

Best Practices

  • Consider making simple changes to design standards, or adopting templates such as the Model Design Manual for Living Streets or Complete Streets, Complete Networks.
  • Take advantage of mill and overlay/repaving projects by planning, and even designing, ahead of time to include bicycle and walking needs in the process.
  • Evaluate budgets to support maintenance needs, especially with roadway striping.
  • Add an evaluation of bicycle and walking needs to the maintenance and operations review cycle.


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