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Changes to Houston Design Manual Could Transform Streets

COH IDM adds Complete Streets

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The regular process to update the City of Houston Infrastructure Design Manual (pdf) - which happens in most years without much fanfare or public involvement - should soon result in a significant change to how Houston streets are designed in the future, including moving toward solidifying the city’s use of a Complete Streets philosophy.

Completes Streets is the idea that streets should be designed prioritizing the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport. Houston Tomorrow is member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets.

Chapter 10 of the IDM “Street Paving Design Requirements” dictates much of the form of the streets you walk, bike, or ride on every day, including in the City of Houston Extraterritorial Jurisdiction outside of the city limits.

The Public Works and Engineering Department’s Standards Review Committee published draft changes for Chapter 10 for a public comment review period that ended on April 30, 2015.

In previous years, final changes to the IDM have been presented to City Council as a finished project and do not receive a council vote. This harkens back to the Woodrow Wilson philosophy of public administration allowing for a skilled bureaucracy to make important decisions free of the improper influence of public opinion.

The most significant proposed changes follow directly from Mayor Annise Parker’s Complete Streets Executive Order, defining both Complete Streets, Context Sensitive Solutions, and the Multimodal Street Classification System:

E. Complete Streets - Complete streets are streets that are designed using context sensitive design principles.

F. Context Sensitive Design - Context sensitive design takes into account all users, including people who are driving or riding in cars, using mass transit, riding bicycles, walking, using wheelchairs, driving or riding in trucks, driving or being transported by emergency vehicles, and being served at their residence or property by other users. Context sensitive design principles are flexible and sensitive to community values. Context sensitive design principles take the following variables in account:

1. People being served at their residence or property by other Right-of-Way users.

2. People of all ages and abilities, including children, older adults, and persons with disabilities.

3. The function of the road (e.g. local, collector, and thoroughfare) and the level of vehicular, pedestrian, and bicycle traffic.

4. Multi-Modal Classification Street Type – A public street type classification that takes into account the functional classification (MTFP designation) and land use context, inclusive of right-of-way width, number of lanes and traffic volume. The context of the land use adjacent to the road comprises population and job densities (present and future), projected land use types (residential, commercial community facility or industrial), and modes of operation (pedestrian, bicycle, transit, rail, freight and vehicle lanes) can be used as a determinant in identifying Multi-Modal Classifications.

  a. Complete Streets and Transportation Plan – A plan that, at a minimum, includes the Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan, Bikeway/Pedestrian Plan, Rail Plan, Multi-Modal Classification Street Type, Master Parking Plan, Bayou Greenway Initiative, Context Report and METRO’s Transit Plan.

  b. Major Thoroughfare - Divided into two classifications; Principal Thoroughfare and Thoroughfare. Major Thoroughfares are those streets designed for fast, heavy truck traffic, high traffic volumes and are intended to serve as traffic arteries of considerable length and continuity throughout the community.

  1. Principal Thoroughfare – Public streets that accumulate traffic from Collector streets and other Major Thoroughfares for distribution to the freeway system. They may be a highway and typically provide a high degree of mobility for long distance trips.

  2. Thoroughfare – Public streets that accumulate traffic from Collector streets and local streets for distribution through the thoroughfare and freeway system. These streets distribute medium to high volume traffic and provide access to commercial, mixed use and residential areas.

  c. Collector Streets - Public streets that accumulate traffic from local streets for distribution to the Major Thoroughfare streets. A Collector Street may be a Minor Collector or a Major Collector.

  1. Major Collector – Public streets that accumulate traffic from local streets
and Minor Collectors for distribution to the Major Thoroughfare. A Major Collector Street may have commercial, residential or have mixed uses abutting.

  2. Minor Collector - A public street that accumulates traffic from local streets for distribution into a thoroughfare or major collector. A minor collector typically serves residential uses. Although in some circumstances, it may serve commercial or mixed uses.

  d. Transit Corridor Streets – Rights-of-way or easements that METRO has proposed as a route for a guided rapid transit or fixed guide way transit system and that is included on the City’s MTFP

Other significant changes include reduction of the standard street lane width from 12 feet to 11 feet - half way to the change called for by Michael Skelly in a recent Houston Chronicle Oped and advocated by Houston Tomorrow and others - and discontinuing the practice of using design speed greater than the posted speed limit.

The City of Austin adopted a comprehensive Complete Streets policy (pdf) in June 2014. The City of Dallas has a draft Complete Streets Design Manual (pdf), but the city website still contains a paving design manual (pdf) published in 1998.

Houston Tomorrow submitted comments at the beginning and end of this process.

Additional comments on the draft Chapter 10 from members of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets:
Bike Houston
Citizens’ Transportation Coalition
Super Neighborhood 22
James Llamas
Jane Cahill West

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