Few institutions can shape a community like a state transportation department. The agencies charged with building interstates are often deeply involved with day-to-day decisions that determine how fast cars can go, how long lights stay red and where pedestrians can cross the road.
Increasingly, though, those state departments of transportation are at the center of controversies over how they design roads and prioritize users of them. As urban areas have become more popular, so-called smart growth advocates who want walkable neighborhoods, vibrant shopping districts and safe passage for cyclists and pedestrians frequently criticize state DOTs -- which were originally called “highway departments” -- for allowing fast vehicle speeds to take precedence instead.
“In theory, DOTs are not only concerned with moving cars on highways -- they manage entire transportation systems, which include transit, biking and walking. But in practice, many state DOTs still operate strictly as highway departments,” Angie Schmitt, an author for Streetsblog, an influential site that promotes smart growth policies, wrote in 2017.
State DOTs have taken notice, and many are trying to address those concerns. But changing the institutional culture of agencies that were formed to build interstates and other highways has not always been easy.
In search of help, several state transportation departments in recent years have engaged with the group Smart Growth America. The organization has helped them understand why they've been slow to adapt to new demands and helped put in place new processes. The group summarized some of the lessons they learned from those experiences in a series of blog posts over the last few weeks.
Researchers found that many of the flaws in agency decisions start even before projects begin, specifically with how engineers define problems and how -- and when -- they engage with the public. They found that engineers are often rewarded for designing projects that allow free flow of vehicles but penalized for coming up with solutions that address other goals. Plus, they found that overall agency goals often don’t align with how funding decisions are made.
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