Let Main Streets Be Main Streets

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Departments of Transportation, which have jurisdiction over thousands of main streets, have strenuously resisted design changes in most cases. This has led to a mentality among community leaders that it’s just too hard to make improvements. But this idea of reclaiming main streets for people has been around for a long time, and there is substantial empirical evidence that it works. It is time for a renewed effort to break down the opposition at state DOTs and implement more balanced mobility in the hearts of cities and towns across America. This is a project that has just barely begun and it badly needs to accelerate.

And the issue is not limited to historic main streets. A few months ago, I was part of a call with four state DOT engineers about a two-lane highway near Ithaca, where the community wants to build a new village center at a key intersection. The current speed limit is 50 mph and there is already a traffic light. Traffic volumes are fairly light, well under 10,000 cars per day in any direction. The community wants to lower the design speed for a short distance, just a quarter mile or so. This would slow down traffic, costing commuters less than a minute of time in either direction. The state engineers frowned on this idea, saying that this is a “non-standard approach,” and that the state DOT doesn’t usually take a non-standard approach.

For existing, historic main streets, the DOT allows lower speed limits, although usually still doesn’t promote good design. But the engineers simply can’t imagine creating a new main street on a state highway. This, mind you, is an area where both the town and county have designated as a node for walkable, mixed-use development. Landowners, residents, and elected officials are on board with this plan. And yet, how can a community create a walkable place with a 50 mph state highway through the middle?

Here’s a radical proposal: A community should determine what kind of community it wants to be, not unelected DOT engineers. If the local leaders want a mixed-use, walkable place, and developers want to build it, and people want to live there, the state DOT exists to support that political and economic will, not stand in the way.

In the middle of the 20th century, DOTs decided that the interest of automobile throughput overrode those of local municipalities, who needed main streets that serve as the social and economic heart of communities. It’s time we reclaimed those main streets as main streets and allowed new main streets to be built again, as determined by local needs.

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