Place-Making Innovative Intersections

How to Drive Slower, But Travel Faster!

By Michael Brown, PE, AICP
* Traffic Engineer, New Urbanism Fan, Founder of Metro Analytics

If you’ve got a suburban Stroad with no reasonable grid nearby, then you probably can’t get rid of enough traffic to avoid having at least a 5-lane cross-section.  So how can you manage high traffic, yet still have a desirable, walkable, livable “Place?” This first article introduces “Drive Slower, Travel Faster” and the math that planners and architects can use when working with engineers to reduce speeds without angering drivers.

This “miracle” uses Place-Making intersection designs:
Quadrant Intersections
, Thru-Turn Intersections, and Town Center designs.

Can the tortoise win the race? Watch the video before reading this article.


How to Turn “Stroads” Back into Livable Streets

A “stroad”  has fairly high-speed traffic, and is usually lined with auto-oriented land uses (a “street-road” combination).  Engineers build these trying to balance land access needs against high traffic volumes often on fairly long trips. Communities want to reinvigorate these older, decaying, stroads as “Complete Street, Walkable Boulevards” with room for bikes, pedestrians, transit, and landscaping. But such stroads often have extreme congestion. If engineers and other stakeholders believe complete streets will make bad congestion even worse, then Place-making desires can end up hollowed out or just die with no political path forward.

But now there are win-win strategies that can  help turn stroads into walkable streets, while at the same time accommodating the same or even greater numbers of vehicles with less congestion.

What’s the magic? It’s what we call “Place-Making Innovative Intersection” designs. If any of these are good fits for your situation, there’s a good chance you can shake hands with engineers rather than wrestle for the upper-hand.


Drive Slower, Travel Faster: The Vision

What if you could reduce speed limits, narrow lanes, or even eliminate a lane, and still give drivers faster average speeds? New opportunities for Complete Streets and Economic Development would emerge.

But such wishful thinking is impossible, isn’t it? Turns out decades ago engineers invented many intersection designs that can handle more cars with the same number of lanes. Sounds like an auto-oriented solution, right? And that’s how engineers have tended to approach it. But some designs have features with amazing Place-Making potential.

Engineers often install left-turn arrows for safety. But this creates a lot of inefficiency and a different set of safety hazards.  The common-thread of all innovative intersections is to eliminate these left-turn phases. There are more than a dozen designs in the family. Some are irredeemably auto-oriented, such as the Continuous Flow Intersection. But the family also includes potential Place-Makers such as Quadrant Intersections, Town Center Intersections, and Thru-Turn Intersections for high-volume settings, and Roundabouts for mid-volume settings.

Let’s review the math that can help you negotiate with engineers…


Drive Slower, Travel Faster: The Math

A typical suburban intersection with left-turn arrows will get congested at fairly low volumes. You might wait more than 5-minutes, inching forward watching the signal turn red/green several times before you even reach the front of the line. Innovative intersection designs can often get the average wait at these signals down to a fraction of what it was before.

So which is faster? Racing at 50 mph on a “stroad” only to wait 3-5 minutes at signals? Or a 35 mph boulevard where you wait just a minute or so at intersections? Engineers may want both the intersection improvements and the historic stroad speed limit. But if you engage them they  may concede that today’s situation would still be faster for drivers even if speed limits are reduced. So use intersection delay reduction as a bargaining chip for reducing the speed limit, narrowing lanes to 10 feet, and other traffic calming features. That’s what it means to drive slower, but travel faster. It’s win-win for autos, bike/ped, and economic development.


How to Eliminate a Traffic Lane

Innovative Intersections boost lane efficiency. A typical suburban arterial might carry about 700 vehicles per hour per lane. But if revamped to include innovative intersections, the boost might jump to 1,100 vehicles or more.

So how is accommodating more cars with the same lanes transit friendly? The increased capacity doesn’t always need to be for cars. In this chart, suppose you have an arterial with 3-lanes each direction where each lane can carry 700 vehicles per hour per lane (blue), or 2,100 total.

So suppose you’ve asked to convert the 3rd lane to transit, but engineers say it can’t be done without harming traffic flow. Now you can show them how innovative intersections might help the remaining two lanes each carry 1,100. The result would be 2,200 for autos (about the same as before).  Now transit can have the 3rd lane without impacting traffic, for a much higher overall “people-capacity.”

If it works out you can’t quite give up a lane, you might be able to get “parts of lanes.” Engineers usually want 12-ft lanes. That’s their standard for stroads signed at 40-mph and higher. But if efficient intersections reduce delay, then you might reduce speeds to 35 or less without hindering average speeds. And 35 mph is where a new 10-ft standard kicks in. That’s the best-practice width for walkable boulevards supported by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, Congress for New Urbanism, and National Association of City Transportation Officials (ITE, CNU, and NACTO).

Try out, a free Complete Street cross-section design tool that uses “red/yellow/green” to guide you through context-based best-practices for speeds, lane widths, and other street attributes.


Turning Suburban Intersections into “Place-Makers”

Ideally, urban intersections would be small with modest volumes of traffic. That is possible in environments with high connectivity and good local grids, but suburbs tend to lack connectivity. What few through-streets exist become overwhelmed with traffic, degrading adjacent land-uses quickly. Many believe Complete Street retrofits would allow land uses to rebound, but it is daunting to create walkable, livable boulevards and at the same time accommodate high volumes of traffic that has no where else to go.

One-way couplets (Town Center Intersections), Michigan-lefts (Thru-Turns), and left-turn diversion routes (Quadrants) were first invented by traffic engineers as a way to manage more vehicles. Couplets are very common, and often thought of as high-speed and inherently auto-oriented.  With narrower lanes and other traffic calming techniques, couplets will certainly prove to be better Place-Makers than “5-lane, two-way stroads.” Michigan-lefts are now spreading fast beyond Michigan, but they always seem to end up auto-oriented when they may not need to be. Quadrants are just starting to grab engineer’s attention, but few are aware of their place-making potential and how to tap it. 

Click any logo below for the article about that design, and to comment or ask questions on that design.

Please Comment!  We need to hear more from everyone who cares about urban streets if we’re to discover how these ideas can really help.  General comments are great right here, but please comment or ask questions on specific designs at the page for that design.

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