TDOT puts Complete Streets policy into practice

By Rayla Bellis
The Tennessee Department of Transportation adopted a “multimodal access” policy in 2015, but recognized that the policy alone would have limited impact without a more comprehensive approach to improving safety for everyone. Since then, TDOT has taken steps to update its practices across the department to improve safety and access for people walking, biking, and taking transit, bringing a Complete Streets approach into all of the internal machinery that makes the agency run.
Many of the changes TDOT has made could be replicated or adapted by other states:
Ask the right questions during scoping and design
TDOT published a new Multimodal Project Scoping Manual last year to help staff better consider and address multimodal needs on every project. It also added a new multimodal design chapter and multimodal standard drawings to its roadway design division standards to help staff make key decisions in the early stages. Together, these resources provide guidance on which types of travelers should be prioritized based on the community context and how to use design flexibility.
TDOT’s new guidance is already changing the types of scopes staff put forward by giving them additional confidence and helping them bring the right considerations into projects from the beginning. “The standard drawings with Complete Streets elements are playing a particularly crucial role in helping staff include those features on projects.”
Look for opportunities in resurfacing projects
TDOT recognized that simply repaving a road with the same layout can lead to major missed opportunities. During resurfacing, states can often improve conditions for people walking and biking at relatively low cost—for example, by restriping with narrower lanes to slow traffic or by adding a bike lane. However, repair projects typically feature a streamlined project development process, making it difficult to identify beneficial changes until it is too late to include them.
To address this, TDOT has switched from a one-year list of upcoming projects to a three-year list. Proactively sharing the list with regional and local agencies allows them to highlight needs (including through a local funding contribution). Upcoming resurfacing projects will also be posted online in map format to make it easier for residents to see that a project is coming up in their neighborhood.
This new process has already resulted in better coordination. Cities have been able to time utility projects with TDOT’s resurfacing, reducing costs to both the state and the locality by avoiding tearing up the road twice.
Creating tools to prioritize multimodal needs
One of TDOT’s recent innovations has been the development of a new “Multimodal Suitability Index” to help evaluate and prioritize potential projects for funding based on needs and opportunities for people walking, biking, and riding transit. The index includes four factors:

  1. Safety: Frequency of crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians
  2. Equity: Location of the project in relation to populations that may have more difficulty accessing resources, including low-income and non-white populations, people under age 18 and over 64, and zero-car households
  3. Demand: Whether the project is located in an area with the potential for higher pedestrian activity if conditions were safer (based on population density, land uses, and proximity to schools, retail, jobs, and transit)
  4. Supply: An evaluation of the road’s existing physical and operational characteristics that impact pedestrian and bicycle safety and comfort, like the speed cars are traveling, and gaps in sidewalks and bike facilities

While this is a new tool and TDOT is not yet using it systematically, it has major potential to elevate needed investments for people walking and biking. TDOT could use it to help select projects for funding across a variety of programs to ensure multimodal needs are met. The tool can also be customized to the goals of specific programs by modifying the weighting of the four factors; for example, TDOT could place a greater emphasis on equity for a given program. TDOT developed the the tool in-house.
Read more about innovations from TDOT and other states here.
Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.