The Urban Street Design Guide: a guidebook for complete streets nationwide

In recent years, cities have been leading innovators in shaping complete streets that accommodate the needs of pedestrians, transit vehicles, bicyclists, freight and motorists, all while considering the businesses and residents located along the street.  The Urban Street Design Guide (USDG) is a new compilation of the design concepts and the lessons learned in the complete streets movement.  Published back in September by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the handbook offers detailed guidance on all sorts of complete street retrofits, such as reimagining the urban boulevard, installing a raised intersection, or tightening a turning radius.  It also advises on how to use limited resources to make improvements through incremental, interim progress.

An Urban Street Design Guide illustration of an interim public plaza. (Credit:

The USDG is grounded in the philosophy that streets in cities and town are not merely for conveying traffic but are also public spaces that should be safe, sustainable, economically beneficial, and enhance the quality of life.  Roadway design in the U.S. has traditionally been oriented toward moving lots of cars safely, quickly, and over long distances. However, urban areas also need walking, transit, bicycles, and freight to maximize the efficiency of their transportation system.  The USDG is the first comprehensive national guidebook to emphasize city street design as a unique practice with its own set of design goals, parameters, and tools.  NACTO believes that this guidance will help allay the political and legal concerns over trying out new roadway design standards.

As a founding organizer of NACTO, Philadelphia has been a key part of the complete streets conversation.  The city’s 2012 complete streets ordinance led to the development of the Philadelphia Complete Streets Design Handbook, a document that communicates design guidance for engineers, architects, and planners and helps communities understand the tools available for creating better streets.  Today, development proposals and roadway projects that meet certain thresholds are required to fill out a Complete Streets Checklist demonstrating consideration and compliance with complete streets guidance in Philadelphia.  Find out more at the Streets Department Complete Streets website.

Urban Street Design Guide before-and-after example of a “Slow Zone” street. (Credit:


Tidbit Tuesday — Land Used for Transportation

Every Tuesday, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation & Utilities (MOTU) posts a map or graphic that tells a story about transportation or utilities in the City of Brotherly Love.

Our friends over at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission have been hard at work on Philadelphia2035, a comprehensive plan to guide our city’s physical development over the next 25 years and beyond.  In their Citywide Vision, adopted in 2011, we learned that approximately 24% of all land within the City of Philadelphia is used for transportation purposes, including streets, sidewalks, rail lines, marine terminals, and airports.

We did a bit of research to find out how that 24% is distributed.

TransportationLandUsesOur numbers were estimated using GIS inventories of land-use by parcel and city street curb edges, both of which are publicly available through Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (a statewide geospatial data clearinghouse).

Could Grocery Delivery be More Efficient Than a Trip to the Store?

Most research and investment toward improving transportation in cities has traditionally addressed the commute to and from work.  However, less than 20% of our everyday travel is work-related, while the rest are for shopping, social, and personal purposes.  Efforts to make transportation more sustainable and equitable will benefit from more research into these other travel patterns.  Today, we look at the rise of online shopping and ask whether getting fresh groceries delivered to your home could be more efficient than a trip to the store.

A new study published this month suggests that not only is grocery delivery a time-saver, but you can also feel good about saving energy and fossil-fuel emissions—maybe.  Erica Wygonik and Anne Goodchild, two researchers at the University of Washington, examined the difference between everyone driving to the grocery store and a system where everyone gets their groceries delivered instead, using the Seattle area as a case study.  They found total miles traveled by vehicles would be 83% lower with a delivery system, and carbon dioxide emissions would be cut almost in half.  These large savings are possible because the groceries are sharing a ride instead of traveling individually, even though delivery trucks are not as fuel efficient as personal vehicles. “Shared-use vehicle transportation services provide for the movement of passengers and goods and may offer opportunities for reducing the environmental footprint of these activities when compared to individuals using personal vehicles,” write the authors.

Online grocer Peapod truck at the Museum of Art (image courtesy of

Grocery delivery truck at the Museum of Art (image courtesy of

This is one of the first studies of its kind done in the United States, but can these findings be applied here in Philadelphia?  Many city dwellers finding this headline were probably thinking, “How is it possible that delivery could be greener than my walk or bike ride to the store?”  In fact, in this city, many residents already have additional options for getting to and from a store other than driving a personal vehicle.  Replacing a walking, bicycle, or public transportation trip to the store with delivery, then, will unlikely have the same savings.  Although this study did not account for such trips, the authors do note that grocery trips not involving a private car should be accounted for in further research.

These findings highlight the need to manage and accommodate deliveries and freight within urban areas.  Here in Philadelphia, being a delivery driver on busy Walnut Street in CenterCity or tiny Third Street in OldCity means competing with many users for limited space.  How could we best fit loading space into a complete street that provides safe sidewalks, driving and bicycle lanes, and parking?

To learn more about how Philadelphia is incorporating a complete streets policy accommodating all users into planning and programming, visit the Philadelphia Complete Streets Design Handbook website.

Complete Streets for Philadelphia!

Presentation1In 2009 Mayor Nutter recognized that for Philadelphia to accommodate the many different ways Philadelphians choose to travel, the City needed to treat every Streets as a Complete Street. Complete Streets are streets that accommodate all Philadelphians, whether they are on foot, bike, bus or in a car.  In June of 2009 he signed an Executive Order establishing a Complete Streets Policy for the City, which required all departments to:

  • Give full consideration to accommodation of the safety and convenience of all users
  • Balance the needs of all users in planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operation; and
  • Prioritize the safety of children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.

To help fulfill the Mayor’s mandate, Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, in conjunction with the Streets Department developed a draft of the Complete Streets Handbook. After meeting with over 100 Philadelphians over ten public out reach meetings, MOTU and the Streets Department have released the final version of the Handbook

The Handbook does two things:

  • Clearly communicate design guidance to planners, engineers and architects
  • Help communities understand the City’s “tool box” for creating better streets

In December of 2012, City Council helped enshrine the policy and the handbook in the City’s every day business practices.  The Complete Streets Bill, Bill No. 12053200, mandated that projects that meet a certain threshold are subject to a Complete Streets review process by the Streets and Planning Departments. Projects that meet the threshold must fill out a Complete Streets Checklist when they submit their projects for review by the appropriate departmental unit. The Checklist ensures that all engineers, developers and architects have reviewed the Complete Streets Handbook and that their designs comply with the principles set forth in the handbook. The handbook and Checklists may all be found at on the Street Departments’ webpage.

The threshold outlined in Bill No. 12053200 states that projects that require Plan of Development Review, or projects that require Civic Design Review, all need to fill out the Complete Streets Design Checklist. Similarly projects that change the curb line AND either add a lay-by-lane, require a traffic study, affect a signalized intersection, or add or expand a driveway to 24 feet will also need to fill out the Complete Streets Design Checklist, to be submitted along with all plans.

Everybody plays a part in making Philadelphia’s streets complete streets, be it the Streets Department, community groups, or developers.  This new framework, which affects both public and private projects, ensures that Phialdelphia’s streets are completed, one street at a time.

Complete Streets Slow Traffic to Increase Activity

A comparison between a Conventional Auto-Centric Street and a Complete Street (Courtesy

A comparison between a Conventional Auto-Centric Street and a Complete Street (Courtesy

Last month, the City of Philadelphia passed a Complete Streets Bill, which mandates the use of the City’s Complete Streets handbook when developing property in order to design streets that will accommodate all transportation modes and increase safety. Complete Streets represent a shift from conventional street design in that accessibility is prioritized over mobility.  This means that the ability to reach destinations by multiple modes of transportation is given precedence over the ability to drive farther and faster.

A recent report by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute explores and identifies even more benefits of complete streets. In addition to greater safety and equity of transportation modes, Complete Streets can: improve the connectivity between streets, encourage active transportation mode shifts, reduce local air and noise pollution, promote smart growth land development, conserve individual energy use, improve neighborhood aesthetics, and increase activity of an area.  The report argues that complete streets and these benefits not only improve overall transportation, but also improve neighborhood livability.

Reducing traffic speeds increases roadway traffic capacity (Courtesy

Reducing traffic speeds increases roadway traffic capacity (Courtesy

A key component to achieving these goals is Complete Streets’ ability to lower the overall speed of traffic, which in turn increases roadway capacity.  This means that even though cars are moving slower, more vehicles can pass through an area.  Although this might seem counter intuitive, when vehicles are traveling at slower speeds, they also travel with less distance between each other, allowing for a greater total traffic.  In fact, the report shows that lowering vehicle speeds from 40mph to 25mph will increase total vehicles by approximately 400 vehicles per hour.  Additionally, a road analysis shows that a street which provides space for multiple modes of travel will increase the total number of people moving through an area simply because automobiles take up the most road space per person. Indeed, the analysis shows that automobiles take up approximately twice as much space as pedestrians and nearly five times as much space as buses on a per person basis.

Philadelphia has already taken the first step to creating more livable communities by passing the complete streets bill.  The Complete Streets Handbook uses a step-by-step process to help developers integrate Complete Streets into new projects.  First, the handbook is used to identify the street type that a particular project is located on, then the handbook describes the various street design interventions that will complete the street.  Finally, the Complete Streets checklist is incorporated into the review process, ensuring that development plans account for a project’s impact on the street and encourages safer and multi-modal transportation that meet the varying demands of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

Read the Full Report –

Evaluating Complete Streets: The Value of Designing Roads for Diverse Modes, Users and Activities

Check-Out Philadelphia’s Complete Streets Handbook

%d bloggers like this: