The Challenges of "Completing" Rural Roads

Today’s post was written by Nadine Lemmon, the Albany Legislative Advocate at New Jersey/New York/Connecticut’s Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and originally appeared on their blog last week. Thanks to Nadine and Tri-State for allowing us to republish it here.

The term “complete streets” can evoke a bustling urban or town center, with streets that sport colored bike lanes, tree-lined sidewalks, and other investments in infrastructure. How to apply this term to rural roads, however, is not as clear. Currently, transportation specialists are rethinking the term in relation to the unique challenges on rural roads, and recommending new design standards that promote safer (and sometimes cheaper) rural roads for all.

Challenges on Rural Roads
Rural roads make up the majority of roads in the United States—80%, or 3.1 million miles—and they carry 40% of the vehicle miles traveled. They are also the most deadly (.pdf), according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2007, the fatality rate in rural areas (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled) was 2.5 times as high as in urban areas. While most pedestrian and bicycle fatalities happen on urban and suburban roads, the statistics on rural roads are significant: in 2009, 28% of pedestrian and 30% of bicycle fatalities occurred on rural roads.

In part, these fatality rates are attributable to slower emergency response times in areas with long distances between population centers. However, two factors also play an important role: the speed and variety of vehicles using the roads. In rural hamlets, “Main Street” often serves a dual purpose; it is both the quickest road between towns and the center for communal activity, which means people on foot. This is the same recipe underlying dangerous roads across the country, as shown by the national report Dangerous by Design (co-authored by TSTC’s Michelle Ernst and Transportation for America’s Lilly Shoup).

Outside of town, different types of vehicles share the road: a tractor putters along, an 18-wheeler drives on deadline for delivery, and a farm worker cycles home. Add into the mix a tourist who doesn’t know the road and a 55 mph speed limit, and you have another deadly combination — different vehicles, with different goals, moving at different speeds — that contributes to crashes. Roads that encourage faster speeds exacerbate this problem.

Increasing truck traffic has made the situation worse, especially in rural areas like New York’s Adirondacks that are close to the Canadian border. More trucks means more wear and tear, and higher maintenance costs. Simultaneously, people and businesses have been moving to urban areas as big agriculture and box stores have usurped the decentralized small-business model. Since rural roads are primarily funded through property and local sales taxes, wilting populations and business activity means fewer dollars for rural highway departments. The result: According to the Federal Highway Administration, 40% of county roads in rural America are inadequate for current travel.

The Road Diet Solution

Its important that rural roads be designed in a way that is consistent with local rural conditions, not imported from suburban areas, according to one of Dutchess Countys new rural roads guides. Photo: Dutchess County Rural Roads Greenway Guide
It's important that rural roads be designed in a way that is "consistent with local rural conditions, not imported from suburban areas," according to one of Dutchess County's new rural roads guides. Photo: Dutchess County Rural Roads Greenway Guide

Some highway departments have reacted to increased use of rural roads by widening them to suburban standards—taking out trees, stone walls, and curvy bends. But this is costly and can also lead to higher speeds.

Another common response is lowering the speed limit. This is an important tool, but a recent study out of Iowa State University shows that it is changing the road design that is critical to changing driver behavior. The study found that narrowing roads can improve safety significantly, although painting a channelizing line was not as effective as physical reductions in lane width.

One nationally recognized model for rural road design is Vermont, whose Road Design Standards and Bicycle and Pedestrian Manual have much to say about providing flexible, multi-modal designs that retain rural character (see also this discussion on Vermont Public Radio).

Some rural planners in the Hudson Valley region north of New York City are also keeping local conditions in mind. John Clarke of the Dutchess County Planning Department has been working with the NYS Hudson River Valley Greenway to develop guidelines that encourage narrower roads, not wider ones. Slower, Safer Streets (.pdf) and Rural Roads (.pdf) Greenway Guides were recently released in draft form, and Clarke hopes that Hudson Valley municipalities will adopt them soon. “Slower, safer streets are complete streets,” Clarke said. Although these guidelines don’t use the term, they achieve the same goal.

Getting trucks off the roads and bringing business back to rural areas are beyond the purview of local highway departments. Unfortunately, in many towns, so is fixing the most important road in town. “Main Street” is often a state road, controlled by the State Department of Transportation, and although New York State Acting Commissioner Stanley Gee has publically stated that he supports complete streets, his department has not adopted such a policy and has not actively supported pending state complete streets legislation, A-8587-B/S.5711-B. Statewide legislation would guarantee that words translate into action, and that these new design standards are applied to the most dangerous roads.

Complete Streets