Like virtually all cars these days, our family car includes the ability to create radio presets—frequencies associated with a button on the console—meant to expedite flipping through the stations we are most interested in. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that in the four years that we’ve had our car, we’ve never bothered to program the presets. Yes, it’s partly because we often listen to other things while we’re in the car. But it’s also because the minor annoyance of scanning through stations when I want the radio never seemed as big a deal as sitting down and plotting out which frequencies to program.

 You might wish neighborhood streets like this one weren't so wide and fast-moving, but if the underlying design requirements in your city mandate road width, there's not a lot you can do to make the street safer. Time to change the requirements. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

You might wish neighborhood streets like this one weren't so wide and fast-moving, but if the underlying design requirements in your city mandate road width, there's not a lot you can do to make the street safer. Time to change the requirements. (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

A new report came across my desk this week that proposes modifications to the system most cities and states use for classifying roadways. There’s a lot to like about the suggested improvements and I hope it gains traction. Reading through it got me thinking about the many ways in which we’ve developed “presets” for determinant elements of our cities’ DNA. Some of these presets are set at a national level (see here), while others are state or local responsibilities.

In all such cases, it’s clear that fighting specific instances brought on by these systematic processes is an unsustainable strategy. You might win a battle here or there, but you only win the war when you succeed in changing the foundational rules of the game.

The truth is that much of the Sturm und Drang that makes the headlines for most of our cities is reactionary in nature: Developer A has proposed Project X, City B has released designs for reconstruction of Road Y, and so on. Generally, despite the most ardent efforts of advocates and involved citizens, the final product ends up somewhere close to what was initially proposed. There’s probably a lot related to anchoring in this dynamic, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that the standards our cities develop are, well, standards, and those looking to deviate from them are inherently in a reactionary position.

On national questions, such as mortgage financing and federal tax policy, there’s little that you or I can do to effect change. While these issues are important to understand, individuals or small groups of limited means simply aren’t equipped to enter the fray. But today I want to highlight several ways in which your local government determines the presets of city building that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. These are areas where you may well be able to make some positive headway. (You’ll notice that zoning isn’t in this list. While it’s very much a local issue, it gets plenty of recognition, and perhaps more credit than it deserves for the way our cities look.)

1. Subdivision Regulations

The formal process by which plots of land are subdivided into smaller plots is called subdivision. In most American communities, the process follows rules and procedures laid out in the subdivision regulations. Some places have unified these regulations with the zoning code to create a “Unified Development Ordinance”. In any case, these regulations govern things like lot sizes, street connectivity, and infrastructure provision.

Consider the oft-derided cul-de-sac. In its common form, this feature of American suburbia is rightfully maligned as a wasteful subsidy to adjacent property owners. Does your city’s code allow for them? Under what circumstances? As wasteful hallmarks of suburbia go, this one is pretty low hanging fruit, and yet how often have you spoken about it with your local elected official?

2. Roadway Functional Classification

State and federal funding schemes for road construction and maintenance are often dependent on some system of roadway classification. The classification of a road also generally determines the design parameters within which an engineer can work. For example, a road classified as an “arterial” may qualify for state funding aid but may also be required to meet certain design requirements, such as wide lanes and high speeds.

How much of your city’s road network is eligible for state or federal aid? Are there design requirements that accompany this assistance?

3. Street Design Standards

When your city’s traffic engineer recommends a design for a new street or reconstruction of an existing one, those plans don’t come from a vacuum. In most cases, your city has a predefined set of standards based upon a variety of contextual factors, such as a road’s importance in the transportation system, and the characteristics of surrounding land uses.

Do your city’s standards include appropriate accommodations for people walking, biking, or taking transit? Were the standards developed with an eye toward the second and third generation of the infrastructure cycle? Is there allowance for design testing, pilot projects, and flexible installations?

4. Building Codes

Most cities and counties in the United States adopt some form of a building code. For cities especially, it is common to use variants of the International Residential Code and the International Building Code. (Don’t let the “international” bit fool you, their adoption is pretty much limited to the US.)

These codes cover things like acceptable building design, material selection, and construction practices. Like other engineering standards, these regulations are the result of a combination of hard-earned experience and proactive thinking. As with other engineering standards, they are developed in the absence of the difficult consideration of tradeoffs between safety and affordability.

A common example is residential building sprinklers. At higher densities these become a required feature of new buildings. The safety benefits of sprinklers are unquestioned. However, there is a considerable added cost to new building construction when sprinkler systems have to be installed, and there’s significant cost variation among different types of sprinkler systems.

In some communities hit hard by high housing costs, are there requirements such as sprinklers that could be tweaked to better align with the community’s desire for less expensive housing?

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Whether we like it or not, our cities largely operate on presets. If our strategies for advocacy are focused on always turning the radio dial until we get what we like, we are destined to lose in the long run. Each fight takes time and resources.

By working to get the presets right, especially on local issues where we can have a real impact, we can focus our energies on other important issues.