Why State DOTs Keep Making the Same Mistakes... and How to Break That Cycle

You know the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?”

No; we’re not saying the people who work at most of our state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) in the U.S. are insane. But advocates for safe, welcoming, vibrant urban streets just might be if we think we can achieve our goals without comprehensive institutional reform within these agencies. That’s the message of a fascinating new blog post series by our friends at Smart Growth America, called How to Build a Better State DOT.

You can read the whole series here, and it is well worth reading. Smart Growth America’s insights here are not superficial, but come from people with a wealth of accumulated experience within these agencies, and a deep understanding of how good intentions get subordinated, on project after project, to destructive business-as-usual practices.

Some key insights:

Round Hole, Square Peg

How to Build a Better State DOT diagnoses the root of the problem quite simply: the skills and procedures it takes to design an effective freeway are not the same skills and procedures it takes to design a great urban street. As the report puts it:

Most state departments of transportation were created largely for one reason: to implement a highway-building program. Or put more bluntly, the same department that delivered this highway on the left a few decades ago is the same one tasked with delivering the street on the right, perhaps right in front of your house.


The street right in front of your house almost never fares well when it’s under the jurisdiction of a state DOT (which is surprisingly often the case, with urban streets which are nominally state highways or receive state funding), because the state DOT was never set up to deal with the complexity of what makes a good street.

This skills and mindset mismatch is compounded by the fact that the metric that predominates in most DOTs, as both an indicator of which projects are necessary and of how successful a project has been—is the disastrously counterproductive Vehicle Level of Service (LOS).

LOS is fundamentally a measure of vehicle delay—a street with perfectly free-flowing traffic even at rush hour gets a grade of LOS “A”, while an intermittently congested street might get a “D.” Measuring LOS makes sense for a freeway, which is intended to do one thing: move a high volume of traffic at high speed between places that people want to be. And yet, trying to optimize LOS within an urban street network leads to colossally stupid outcomes:

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.

Reform Has To Happen “Upstream”

Many cities and states have “Complete Streets” policies in writing. Or “Vision Zero” policies which aim to eliminate traffic deaths. Or lists of criteria for all sorts of positive social outcomes we hope to see from street projects. And yet, we’re perennially surprised when none of those priorities filter their way up into the design process within the DOT, and we’re presented with a same-old-same-old project: wide lanes, pedestrian-hostile intersections, high design speeds, all in the name of maximizing vehicle speed and throughput. And by the time these designs make it to the public engagement process, they’re too often presented as a fait accompli. Smart Growth America is working to change this by digging into the inner workings of the DOT:

But the most crucial steps for implementing this approach happen long before funding is allocated and certainly long before a shovel ever hits the ground, in upstream areas like addressing agency culture and administrationproject scoping, and public engagement. These areas may sound dry and boring but have an outsize impact on what gets built and where, how much it costs, and whether or not it helps accomplish a state’s goals.

Over the past two years, we worked with nine states—Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia—to help them better align their practices with their aspirations.

Define the Problem Correctly

One thing DOTs frequently do wrong is the very first step in planning a new street project: defining the problem. If you limit your own understanding of your mandate, or the list of factors you’re willing to consider, from the get-go, then no amount of later public feedback is likely to turn the ship around:

One of the biggest barriers to practical solutions is the practice of defining the need for a project as a specific improvement (ex. add a turn lane) instead of a problem to be solved (i.e. northbound backups at Second and Main during the afternoon rush). And when a Purpose and Need statement goes so far as to include a specific approach (add the turn lane), then all other features—sidewalks, crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, or bicycle facilities—become “add-ons” or “amenities” which are first to get scrapped when confronted with funding constraints. Starting with a clear definition of the problem rather than a specific improvement can make such “amenities” central components of a future project and open the door to more inexpensive solutions (like retiming traffic lights).

Don’t Ignore Routine Repairs as an Opportunity to Fix Past Mistakes

One of the most maddening experiences an advocate can have is finding out that the city or state finally plans to repave that one awful, dangerous stroad in your neighborhood. So you show up to the meeting having done your homework, and armed with concrete, pragmatic suggestions for improving the street: adding bike facilities, maybe, or a wider sidewalk, or a planted median. And then you’re politely told that those things are “outside the scope of the project,” which is only a repaving effort with no room to reconsider the street’s actual layout. SGA covers this problem too:

Routine repaving projects… make up a huge portion of a DOT’s work. [However,] roadway repair projects are typically funded through different pots of money and have a more streamlined process with less community engagement. As a result, most states simply default to repaving a road with the same layout it had previously.

…. This approach to routine repair is a major missed opportunity. States can often improve conditions for people walking and biking at relatively low cost when they resurface a road—for example, by restriping the road with narrower lanes to slow down traffic or adding a bike lane. Unfortunately, without taking the time to engage the public or the local agencies first, the state may not know what changes would be beneficial or needed until it is too late to include them in the project.

Signs of Hope

The good news is that a growing number of states are taking a concerted look at how their DOTs keep replicating the same mistake of designing urban streets like highways, ignoring the surrounding context or the needs of anyone not in a car. SGA gives Tennessee, in particular, a shout-out for their concerted efforts to change how projects are selected, designed and implemented, and points out concrete things they’re doing differently.

The culture is changing, albeit not fast enough, when it comes to how we understand streets and roads, and it’s changing among people at the highest levels of influence. Almost a decade ago, Strong Towns’s Chuck Marohn coined the word “stroad” and described the stroad as “the futon of transportation”—an uncomfortable compromise that is good at neither of the things it purports to do. Now, A Governing article about the SGA series quotes Beth Osborne, a former top administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation who is now the director of SGA affiliate Transportation For America and led this project, making this exact point:

Osborne suggests arterials are so fraught because public officials aren't willing to make choices about how certain streets should be used.

“It’s asking the road to be [a] futon,” she says. “A futon is neither a good sofa nor a good bed. It’s kind of in-between. And that’s what we’re asking our roads to be.”

People get it. There are many people within every DOT in America who get it. But institutions are slow to change. A concrete conversation about how to get them there is very, very welcome.

(Cover photo: Oregon DOT via Flickr)