February 2009


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Part One of this essay covers the background, characteristics and drawbacks of functional classification, and evaluates some of the leading alternatives. Part Two continues by proposing a replacement, a sustainable transportation network classification, covering the block-scale and neighborhood-scale relationships. Part Three concludes by covering the city-scale relationship and the congestion-related impacts of a sustainable network.

City Scale

The ideal pattern of regional growth has been debated at least since the 19th century. In the 1960s and 70s the focus of the debate sharpened on efficiency and sustainability, and the “Compact City” was suggested to be the ideal. The Compact City redirects all growth into a single urban core, maximizing density while minimizing the consumption of farms, forests and agricultural land. It explicitly counteracted the dominant trend of decentralized suburban sprawl.

Some of the benefits of the Compact City idea have been confirmed by researchers. Cities with higher density and more compact form have much less per capita driving (Newman and Kenworthy, 1999). In existing cities, the trend of sprawling suburban growth causes an explosion in the amount of auto driving; a policy of refocusing growth, mixed use and transit in the urban core will halt that explosion and slightly reduce the amount of driving (Simmonds and Coombe, 2000).


Analysis of city-scale development patterns shows that focusing growth on high-capacity transit nodes will have the greatest CO2 reduction effect. Image credit: Eliot Allen, “Cool Spots”

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Download a print version of this essay.

Part One of this essay covers the background, characteristics and drawbacks of functional classification, and evaluates some of the leading alternatives. Part Two continues by proposing a replacement, a sustainable transportation network classification, covering the block-scale and neighborhood-scale relationships. Part Three concludes by covering the city-scale relationship and the congestion-related impacts of a sustainable network.

A sustainable network classification ideally will do several things.

  • Actively encourage sustainability (as defined previously in the sustainable transport section); do not support unsustainable network patterns and operations.
  • Be concise, easy to remember and easy to explain.
  • Address a range of scales, a range that is at least as wide as that covered by functional classification.
  • Incorporate advanced knowledge about network function and best practices in network planning.

To reach these goals, a sustainable network classification is proposed. The classification has three primary relationships, each applying to a different scale. The three scales are block scale, neighborhood scale, and city scale. This allows each relationship to focus on the factors most relevant to its scale, without unnecessarily confusing factors from different scales or combining them inappropriately.

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Download a print version of this essay.

Every field has its foundational working concepts and the field of traffic engineering is no exception. It has a concept called functional classification, which is the core, guiding idea underlying the roadway system of the United States and many other nations. Functional classification is the conceptual foundation of the auto-dependent built environments where most Americans live.

The primary vision of functional classification is moving more and more cars at faster and faster speeds. This has certain benefits, but also a wide range of disastrous consequences for the built environment and the people who live in it. Hundreds, possibly thousands of reform-minded transportation planners and engineers have determined that the roadway functional classification system should be replaced.

It should be replaced by guiding concepts that support a more efficient, safer, less-polluting transportation system – concepts that support a wider range of choices for neighborhood living and daily travel. What factors should be considered when formulating a sustainable transportation system? What proposals have already been made?

Part One of this essay explores those questions. Part Two continues by proposing a replacement, a sustainable transportation network classification, covering the block-scale and neighborhood-scale relationships. Part Three concludes by covering the city-scale relationship and the congestion-related impacts of a sustainable network.

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