New York State DOT: Thanks, But We’ll Pass on 21st Century Street Designs

This is the road that engineers at New York State DOT headquarters drive to work on. Image: Google Maps
This is the road that engineers at New York State DOT headquarters drive to work on. That’s their office building and parking lot to the left. Image: Google Maps

It looks like we have our answer as to whether New York State DOT will follow six other states in adopting NACTO standards for safer, multi-modal streets.

In March, NYS DOT Deputy Chief Engineer Richard W. Lee wrote NACTO to say that, while it would keep the Urban Street Design Guide on hand, the agency won’t be endorsing its guidelines for some of New York State’s most heavily-traveled and dangerous streets.

Wrote Lee:

NYS DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald could lay down the law and join other leading states in adopting NACTO guidelines, if she chooses. Photo:
NYS DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald could lay down the law and join other leading states in adopting NACTO guidelines, if she chooses. Photo: ##|

We are pleased to support the Guide for our internal use and will provide it to our staff as a reference for the design of urban and residential streets, where implementation would be in conjunction with the appropriate traffic and engineering studies.

As noted in the introduction of the Guide, urban situations are complex, and good engineering judgment must always be employed. NYSDOT found that the requirements or recommendations of the Guide occasionally conflict with those of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and NYSDOT’s own guidelines for collectors and arterials. We understand that the Guide is intended to apply primarily to urban streets, however many of New York State’s collectors and arterials are located in urban areas. Due to our concern for the potential safety and mobility impacts on these roadways, we will not be recommending its use for collectors and arterials.

The 2014 Smart Growth America “Dangerous by Design” pedestrian fatality study found that, though just 15 percent of lane miles in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are classified as arterials, from 2003 to 2012 they accounted for 50 percent or more of pedestrian deaths in 90 percent of counties.

There’s a reason the report is called “Dangerous by Design” — streets and roads designed for maximum auto throughput are not safe for people who walk and bike. If anything, the status quo on these streets should be an argument in favor of incorporating NACTO designs into the NYS DOT tool kit. Though states including California, Washington, Massachusetts — even Tennessee — have updated their guidelines, apparently NYS DOT won’t be following suit because they conflict with outmoded designs recommended by AASHTO.

NYS DOT did not respond to Streetsblog’s query concerning the NACTO guide.

  • Clarence

    I went to school at SUNY Albany which is adjacent to this grouping of buildings. Let me just say this complex is one of the least ped/bike friendly places in all of Albany. Maybe in all of NY State. From the air it basically screams DO NOT COME HERE UNLESS YOU HAVE A CAR!

  • Kevin Love

    Wow! What a profoundly hostile environment show in the photograph. And people who are designing streets work there?

    “Dangerous by design” is a good description. Of particular concern is the over 1,000 people in New York City who are poisoned and killed by car drivers every year. Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to these lethal poisons.

    In the photo’s caption it talks about the engineers driving to work. It is deeply disturbing that people in charge of designing streets should be so profoundly ethically impaired that they would choose to launch a lethal cancer poison attack upon innocent children while travelling to work.

  • Vernon6

    That is one (multiple, actually) impressive parking crater.

  • Albany Bred

    If you look the site has it’s own loop road (Campus Road) and it is designed as if it was a high-speed airport for cars. Cars travel the access road at ridiculously high speeds – especially for a place plopped down adjacent to walkable neighborhoods on 3 sides of it. I’ve rarely seen anyone walking there. It was obviously designed during the era of Robert Moses.

  • New York State resident

    This is exactly the crap that safer street advocates confront. NYS-DOT, and the revolving door engineers that work with them, refuse to recognize the design-based safety gains that NYC and other places have attained with NACTO. And since NYS-DOT controls so many urban streets plowing through our communities, we’re stuck in a 1950s lifestyle of happy motoring.

    What are our choices? NYS-DOT won’t let us change the design of its roads. So we’re left with “education” and “enforcement”. The former is ineffective when so many drivers come from outside our municipality and don’t give a damn anyway, and the latter is a budgetary nightmare due to Governor Cuomo’s tax cap on municipalities. You should hear the laughter at meetings when someone proposes hiring more cops for speed enforcement.

    Meanwhile, they’re complicit in boondoggles like the Tappan Zee Bridge and highway expansions, which will lead to a flood of even more cars onto our streets.

  • NYS DOT: No Thanks NACTO, but we love our Parking Crater! Hat tip to Vernon6.

  • Haha! You are correct! I just re-posted the video for people to watch.

  • George

    There’s the accumulated 65+ years of auto-oriented design and designer culture that NACTO is working against here.

    U.S traffic engineers see their goal as moving as many cars around as quickly as possible. Anything that interferes with that is anathema. America by-in-large sees itself as a suburban, auto-oriented country and that’s reflected in our public policies. The powerful tax and voter base in the suburbs isn’t going to allow itself to be inconvenienced for what it sees as a niche lifestyle. They may be the “tail that wags the dog” as far as road and street design, but wag it they do.

    Getting state DOTs to agree to revise their policy is a *really* hard sell and would require a cultural change in the whole chain of command within the DOTs. Keep in mind with a few exceptions that state governments tend to be dominated by suburban and rural interests who see no benefit in moving away from the status quo. Even for those sympathetic to NACTOs goals, there’s the problem of sticking with what you know because you know it already.

    The perception of safety is that driving is safe and not-driving is dangerous. Of course, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But this notion may also explain why the DOTS don’t care about ped/cyclist deaths and injuries. They see those as inherently dangerous in and of themselves, and auto/non-auto collisions as just an unavoidable price for our auto-prioritized road system.

    Accept that this isn’t The Netherlands or Denmark where there’s a significant constituency of cyclists and pedestrians and that moving away from the AASHTO model may not be possible.

  • Eric Cramer

    They just need to make a place for cars, a place for pedestrians and place for bicycles and that’ll be the end of that. Of course, one has to come up with an economical design that isn’t too cumbersome in order to separate all the different kinds of traffics.
    Oh wait, you’re right the Netherlands have done that and some intersections even have that nifty donut thing for cyclists and pedestrians to go over car traffic. The US is going to play catch up with everything from transportation to nuclear power. US invents, then abandons. Sad really.

  • BBnet3000

    The DOT building is actually on Wolf Road (across from Colonie Center), not in the Harriman Campus.

    But yeah, the Harriman campus and to a lesser extent SUNY is a fantastic example of obsolete mid-century thinking on transportation. To even walk to the nearest street is a hike, and a fairly hostile crossing to try to get to businesses on the other side.

    SUNY has also doubled down on this type of thinking, with keeping Washington Ave as a highway and building a skybridge over it for the nanotech expansion. The main nanotech building is amazingly inaccessible despite being right across the street from the main campus.

    All this amounts to isolation of the campus, but within it at least everything is somewhat close together and pedestrian friendly (if you live in the dorms). I have seen campuses that are a lot worse to walk around. You dont actually have to cross any real streets to get to class (if you live in the dorms). And the crossing from Empire, though theres a gigantic parking lot in the way, is a pretty good example of putting pedestrians before the cars using the ring road.

  • BBnet3000

    The NYS DOT in context. I have crossed Wolf Road on foot, but its not recommended. Theres some chain restaurants in the mall across the stroad, but do you think many people would walk from their office to them, or to Trader Joes (at top right) to grab a pre-made lunch?

    Downtown Albany (miles from this picture) is pretty blah but basically walkable, id say better than downtown Brooklyn. You can see why the state highway agency turned their back on it, because they don’t believe in self-powered transportation, period.

    Also, Wolf Road has so much induced driving that it is a serious nightmare when driving. I avoided this place like the plague when i lived in Albany and HAD A CAR.

  • J

    Clearly Safety is one of the areas where NACTO’s designs conflict with NYSDOT’s priorities, which seem to be:
    1) Move cars

    2) Move cars
    3) Move cars

  • upstate bicyclist

    Perhaps a message or petition to Deputy Chief Engineer Richard W. Lee and Commissioner MacDonald’s boss, Governor Cuomo would help the DOT change its mind about adopting universal roadway standards for bicycles and pedestrian travel on NYS’s collectors and arterials. The NACTO standards do allow for deviations from the norm when necessary for the safe passage of bicyclists and pedestrians.

    I don’t think the Legislature should be involved in what is essentially an administrative and technical rule or regulation.

    Is the NYS DOT actively following the Complete Streets law?

  • JimthePE

    DOT’s regional office was in a walkable neighborhood in downtown Schenectady, but were moved into empy space in the Wolf Road building. Hopefully. some of them will realize what they were forced to give up.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Hey! At least NYS DOT is having the conversation. That’s more than can be said about Jersey or Connecticut, right?

  • neroden

    Geez. This is an argument for relocating NYSDOT’s offices immediately.

    …can Streetsblog make an article about this?

  • neroden

    Rich suburbs occasionally simply decide to forego state funding. If you refuse state funding, and successfully petition to have a road delisted so that it isn’t a state highway, you can ignore NYSDOT completely.

    At the moment this seems like the only approach which is going to work.

  • Pete

    DOT’s actually on Wolf Road instead of the State Office Campus, although it’s not like that’s much better. There’s at least a token sidewalk out front to take you to Colonie Center’s parking lot.

  • New York State resident

    That’s really interesting, and I know some counties have tried to turn streets over to towns and villages. But a major signed road like NYS Route 1 or 9 in Westchester would lose its continuity. Or does it keeps it label, but control falls to the local municipality?

    Also, it would be a tough political issue to persuade a town to add to its responsibilities without some monetary compensation.

    Can you offer some examples where this has happened in NYS?

  • MontrealUrbanist

    Why are engineers in charge of transportation to begin with? Why do engineers run the show, while occasionally consulting urbanists. This is the problem. We have it flipped backwards. Urbanists should be tasked with doing the transportation planning and engineers should be consulted for specific and highly technical implementation matters only.

    This is not a knock at engineers, simply an observation that we have our priorities backwards.

  • Kevin Love

    In the private sector this is exactly what happens. Industrial engineers don’t make decisions about product design. That is done by the people in touch with customers – marketers, product designers, or an entrepreneur with an idea that he thinks will sell.

    Can we imagine if the person in charge of designing the factory were to tell the product design people:

    “You can’t design your widget this way or have these features, because the factory that I am building won’t accommodate its manufacture. Instead, you have to design something that is incredibly dangerous, hostile and stress-inducing to the people who have to use it.”

    Isn’t that exactly what NYS DOT engineers are doing?

  • Joe

    You forgot one…move cars FAST in urban areas!

  • Daniel

    I have an engineering degree and the training was not to look at the big picture. It was to take a set of constraints and produce the best possible outcome given those constraints. Currently the state DOT engineers have been tasked with moving the largest number of cars at the highest possible speeds. Hand the engineers a different task and they will do it after a little bit of grumbling. In my experience engineers don’t want to be in charge of the “what do we as a society value?” question, they want to optimize the solution to the answer to that question. Engineers optimize the solution, scientist figure how to measure progress toward the solution, politicians decide what problem to solve and together we all decide which politicians we get and we tell them what we value through word, deed and action.

  • Joe R.

    We shouldn’t be so quick to blame engineers here. The problem is they’re dealing with a schizophrenic electorate which frankly often doesn’t know what it wants, or if it does, gets cold feet if the implementation inconveniences them in any way. Engineers should get general directives from those in charge, such as make this street safer for bikes/pedestrians. The actual nuts and bolts of how to accomplish this goal should be left up to the engineers, not some community board saying we need a speed bump here, or a traffic signal there. This is micromanagement. Nobody likes micromanagement, least of all highly trained professionals. Some of the things traffic engineers deal with would be like me as an electronics engineer having a customer tell me to design a circuit to perform a given function, but at the same time telling me what parts to use. The parts may or may not be suitable for that particular function, and a layperson really can’t make a decision like that. Actually, a customer did exactly that with me once. The solution I came up just to incorporate a particular part they insisted upon cost ten times as much and was far less reliable. Next time around they gave me free reign to do what I wanted.

    You also have the unique influence of politics. If part of the traffic engineer’s solution might involve things like removing traffic lanes, or, gasp, eliminating parking they may come up against vocal politicians telling them they can’t do it. Of course, the traffic engineers will still get the blame when they can’t solve the problem they were tasked with, even when the reason they couldn’t was because some politician effectively tied their hands.

    This all is related to a larger problem we as a society must come to terms with. Years ago most people trusted the judgement of experts in any given field. More and more people nowadays tend to second guess experts, or often even act like they know better, such as patients telling doctors they need some drug because they saw an ad for it. There’s a reason experts often must go to school for many years, then have many years of field experience before being termed “expert”. Unfortunately, society refuses to let experts solve problems. Instead, we meddle, with predictable results. Too many cooks in the kitchen only spoils the meal. It’s time to just let experts in all field, including traffic engineers, do their thing with a minimum of interference. Just give the experts a general goal, then sit back and let them solve it. Reserve criticism until after the final solution is in place long enough to have had a chance to work.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve been saying as much for quite some time now. Shared space only works when there’s not too much of any one type of traffic. Put a bunch of pedestrians, cyclists, and motor vehicles in the same space and you have a dangerous mess no matter what you do. The problem is each mode has different requirements. Any compromise solution ends up being lousy for everyone, with predictable disregarding of any of the rules which make the compromise solution work even marginally. That brings you right back to mayhem. Everyone just needs their own separate space when there is a lot of one or more types of traffic.

    And I love those donut things.

  • Joe R.

    The problem is when laypeople set unrealistic constraints. I’ve been asked at times to design things for totally unrealistic costs. The customer just can’t accept reality until I show them a detailed breakdown of what just the parts cost. Often they want a finished product for half what the parts to build it would cost me. Sorry, but I can’t work miracles. Neither can traffic engineers. If we tell traffic engineers to add bike/ped space, but to do so without slowing down motor traffic, removing traffic lanes/parking, or using grade separation, then we’ve basically given them an impossible task in many cases.

  • Eric Cramer

    You’d think the urban planners with their fancy degrees would realize people just go where they feel safe.

  • Nathanael

    The examples I can immediately think of personally are Cayuga Heights Road and N Triphammer Road, “arterial” roads in Cayuga Heights. Cayuga Heights a tiny village next to Ithaca which is separately incorporated, largely for the purpose of keeping the money of the rich in the suburb of the rich. My father assures me that Cayuga Heights Road used to be a signed state road back in the 1950s. It isn’t any more, and apparently that was deliberate action by the village. Apparently N Triphammer Road used to be a state-aid road. It also isn’t any more.

    The Town of Ithaca attempted to rebuild a hunk of one of its nearby local roads (Hanshaw Rd.) in the last couple of years with assistance from state funding — but the state demanded that the Town widen the lanes in order to get state funding, despite local protest. Another road reconstruction of a county road (Coddington Rd.) is halted for the same reason, because the state demands wider lanes before it will give out any money, and in this case were absolutely unwilling to allow that.

    By contrast, the Village of Cayuga Heights has rebuilt its local “arterials”, including N. Triphammer, while completely ignoring the state road standards for both lane width and number of lanes. This is because Cayuga Heights didn’t take state money at all, and as a result can do whatever it likes with its local roads. N. Triphammer reduces from four lanes to two at the Lansing/Cayuga Heights border, even though there’s still a large right-of-way width — a large median was built in order to manage the transition! I know from the history that the state government really wanted to widen the road, but the village simply said “no”.

    Unfortunately I don’t know the local politics of most other areas very well. It’s quite noticeable if you drive down route 17C from Union, NY to Binghamton, NY that *some* municipalitites have cut it down to two narrow lanes with bike lanes, sidewalks, etc., while others have a sprawling quasi-expressway — but I don’t have the same information about the funding history there as I do for the Ithaca area.

    Certainly, it may be unlikely for a municipality to get full local
    control of giant through-routes like US Route 1 or US Route 9, since the
    *feds* are involved too. But it’s quite viable to do it with other
    “arterials” — if you’re rich enough to pay for them locally.

    I don’t really know the rich suburbs of NYC very well, so I couldn’t tell you where this might be viable, but I’d look at secondary arterials (NY numbered routes or unnumbered routes) first, rather than US highways. And as I say, I’d look at *rich* municipalities. Cayuga Heights was rich enough that the locals just said “Who needs the state”.


If Tennessee Can Adopt Livable Street Designs, So Can New York State DOT

States and cities across the country have adopted standards from the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, a blueprint for safe, multi-modal streets that made its debut last fall. New York City is among those cities that have incorporated NACTO guidelines, and this month Tennessee became the sixth state to do so. But Matthew […]

California Endorses the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide

It wasn’t a total surprise, but exciting nevertheless for bicycle advocates gathered at the NACTO “Cities for Cycling” Road Show in Oakland last night. Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty announced that the agency will endorse the use of the National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide, giving California cities the state DOT’s blessing to install modern […]

NACTO Urban Street Design Guide Sets Out to Change the DNA of Our Cities

In a direct challenge to the long-standing authority of state DOTs to determine how transportation infrastructure gets designed, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) yesterday launched its Urban Street Design Guide. NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide has already empowered cities around the country to embrace protected bike lanes and other innovative designs that […]