What is a context sensitive street?

Faced with the detrimental effects of city-wide unemployment and disinvestment, community members determined to revitalize and reimagine the character of the main commercial district of West Jefferson, NC embarked on a context sensitive street redesign in 2011. Through a partnership of local leaders and NCDOT staff, a routine resurfacing of Jefferson Avenue was leveraged to transform downtown West Jefferson through the removal of traffic signals at two intersections and incorporation of pedestrian-friendly streetscape elements to attract new businesses to downtown. Image Credit: Town of West Jefferson.

As defined by the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, a context sensitive street is a transportation facility that fits its surrounding physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility. Roadways that have prioritized a single user, the automobile, may not be the most appropriate design for a walkable, mixed-use thoroughfare like Murray Hill’s Edgegwood Avenue. Many municipalities are rolling out ‘road diets’ along streets like Edgewood in order to reconfigure the street to be more appropriate to a community’s wants, desires and needs.

A typical road diet typically involves converting an existing four-lane, undivided roadway segment to a three-lane segment consisting of two through lanes and a center, two-way left-turn lane. Road diets offer several high-value improvements at a low cost while enhancing safety, mobility and access for all road users that accommodates a variety of transportation modes.

To stimulate near-term downtown investment in Livermore, CA, the City transformed First Street from a wide, noisy arterial into a people- and business-friendly main street in 2006. Physical enhancements to First Street included narrowing the roadway from four to two lanes, using the outside lanes for diagonal parking, adding a row of trees with flexible dining spaces within the Right-Of-Way, widening the sidewalks, creating seating areas for pedestrians, and the replacement of a wide right-turn slip lane with a new park plaza and fountain.

According to the USDOT, four-lane undivided highways experience relatively high crash frequencies. As such, the agency has determined that the implementation of a road diet is a proven safety countermeasure and a safety-focused design alternative to a traditional four-lane, undivided roadway. As more communities desire more livable spaces, they look to government transportation agencies to find opportunities that better integrate pedestrian and bicycle facilities and transit options along their commercial corridors corridors. Put simply, a road diet is a low-cost solution that addresses safety concerns and benefits all road users while providing lucrative economic development opportunities — a win-win for quality of life.

In 2002, through a partnership with local stakeholders the City of Orlando ‘rightsized’ a 1.5 mile stretch of Edgewater Drive in the College Park neighborhood. The road was converted from two travel lanes in each direction to one travel lane in each direction, plus a two-way left turn lane and bike lanes. The street was transferred from the State to the City’s jurisdiction to enable the lane reconfiguration. Edgewater Drive is now safer: the crash rate was nearly cut in half, total collisions dropped 40 percent and injuries fell by 71 percent after the conversion took place. Edgewater Drive is more vibrant: 77 net new businesses opened and 560 new jobs have been created since the roadway conversion was completed. Edgewater Drive is more valuable: the value of property adjacent to Edgewater Drive has risen 80 percent, and the value of property within half a mile of the road has risen 70 percent. Traffic patterns remain optimal along Edgewater Drive: on-street parking use has gone up 41 percent and automobile traffic only decreased 12 percent within a year following the redesign, while bicycle counts surged by 30 percent and pedestrian counts by 23 percent.

The Federal Highway Administration notes that road diets are not just a fad. One of the first road diets was undertaken in Billings, Montana in 1979. Nearly three decades later, cities all around the US have reaped the benefits of reconfiguring roadways to be more contestually appropriate along key commercial corridors.