How a singular focus on speed leads state DOTs to overspend and overbuild

The most productive state departments of transportation are those that have come to grips with the fact that moving cars fast all the time is hard to square with most of their other stated priorities, whether improved safety, more mobility, or reduced costs.

An example of two streets managed by a state DOT, with drastically different purposes. Does your state know how to treat them differently?

Over the last two years, Smart Growth America has been working to help a small group of state departments of transportation question and assess the underlying assumptions that result in giant highway solutions for every transportation problem. This is the second in a series about the states that are finding success through what’s known as practical solutions, a way for transportation departments to meet changing demands and plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain context-sensitive transportation networks that work for all modes of travel. Read the third post here.

In our first post, we showed how state departments of transportation (DOTs)—with highway-building DNA embedded deep within them—are now tasked with building and/or operating transit, building streets to serve a wide range of mobility needs, moving people instead of just vehicles, to name just a few. And then they are asked to balance this new diverse portfolio against a single stated (explicit or implicit) priority of building roads on which cars can always travel as fast as possible.

As we chronicled, even in states that want to find a new way of doing business, most struggle against decades of embedded culture and practice that was designed to create the Interstate system and move vehicles quickly through communities.  Some are being given what could best be described as an impossible task: help connect people to places worth visiting, and then make certain they never have to slow down once they get there, making it not that enjoyable to visit.

What are some of the biggest struggles for state practitioners, and what have we seen in our two years of work with a handful of them? Here are four things we frequently hear:

It’s nearly impossible to square the priority of speed with most other state goals

It’s hard to surface the assumptions that are rooted deep in the DNA of a state DOT. And their assumed number one priority is so built-in from decades of practice that it’s rarely stated out loud. This assumption of “the cars need to always move fast and never slow down” is at the root of most of the big problems that they face. Engineers have a prerequisite—sometimes explicitly stated but always implicit in the agency’s culture of practice—that makes every other priority a nearly impossible task.

Make sure the vehicles can always go fast

  • Prioritize repair first
  • Keep everyone safe, including people walking & biking
  • Create vibrant places worth visiting
  • Keep your costs low
  • Don’t negatively impact nearby communities
  • Help connect everyone to jobs and opportunity, whether they drive or not
  • Promote sustainable and lasting economic development
  • Reduce transportation-related emissions


In practice, what this turns into is a list of secondary goals states would like to accomplish, that usually get sacrificed for the real top priority of speed. Until we come to grips with the fact that moving cars fast at all times of day without delay is a goal that can’t always be squared with all of the other priorities, until we can admit that perhaps everyone is not going to be able to go fast all the time, we’ll continue building unnecessarily large and expensive roads where speed is the number one priority and most other priorities fall by the wayside.

States expend a lot of effort trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes, rather than using round pegs

When faced with the challenge of connecting people to jobs and efficiently moving goods and people around, the starting point is usually a  high-capacity road or highway. It’s the logical output of state DOTs created to build the autobahn in the US, that got so good at building this one product that they now try to build it everywhere. They take this product and use it as the template to build roads that go through neighborhoods, by schools and are supposed to serve as main streets. The states currently finding a better way forward are opening up their arsenal of solutions to be far more diverse.

State DOTs are reluctant to believe that they can or should dictate behavior

When talk turns to trying to design streets to be safer (which often requires slower speeds), I’ve had traffic engineers express discomfort with using roadway design to dictate to people how they should behave. In fact, they are already making a million design decisions that affect how we behave behind the wheel—including setting speed limits. States design roads to indicate to drivers that they should go fast (with wide, straight lanes and infrequent signals or crossings), and then are surprised when drivers respond logically to that design, acting as if there is nothing they can do to change that or slow them down.

A singular focus on reducing delay leads state DOTs to overbuild roads, waste money, and generate more traffic, as well as many other frequent problems

Design decisions are too often dominated by the worry that traffic level-of-service (delay) might be bad for even short periods of time, and so streets get overbuilt.

Constant free-flowing traffic 24/7 is perpetually held up as the ideal, and we invest accordingly, but we’d never make fiscal decisions like this with our own money. Say you have a big party at your house a few times a year with 50-75 people. Would you pay to renovate the house you live in to add six more bathrooms to ensure that no one has to wait to use the restroom at your party? Or would you rationally expect a bit of waiting? The states going broke (or begging for more money) are the ones that spend millions trying to address a few minutes of excessive delay that happen at limited times.

We always believe the roadways will get more demand, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when we overbuild them. That overbuilt road cuts off shorter trips and makes walking and biking dangerous, and then we’re surprised when it generates traffic. The states making the most of their money these days are the ones targeting their investments to the places where traffic truly is bad for the longest period of time, as opposed to trying to avoid any slow down whatsoever.

Even better yet would be agreeing that, sometimes, slower moving traffic is the goal, because it makes the road safer and the surrounding place or neighborhood a better place to be.

Up next, we’ll be looking specifically at some of the recurring lessons we learned over the last two years as we worked with these handful of states to find more flexible ways to solve their problems.

Read the third post of this series: Building a better transportation system starts long before breaking ground>>

The Governors’ Institute on Community Design, a program of Smart Growth America, helps state leaders address economic development, housing, transportation, and other pressing issues that relate to how communities grow and develop. Visit for more information.

The Governors’ Institute has developed the Accelerating Practical Solutions program to help transportation agencies meet changing demands on their systems by defining the transportation problem to identify the most cost-effective solution to that problem. The program aims to build internal capacity to plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain context-sensitive transportation networks that work for all modes of travel. This series was developed with the support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation.

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