How to build a better state DOT, the digest

State departments of transportation (DOTs) direct most of the transportation spending in the United States but they’re often focused on building highways and are ill-equipped to address the far more diverse mix of challenges they’re tasked with solving today. In a month-long series we just wrapped up, we examined how we got here, what state DOTs need to change, and how one state is putting its intentions into practice.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken a deep dive into how current practices and policies at state departments of transportation (DOTs) lead to the construction of huge, expensive road projects (i.e. highways) as the ‘solution’ to almost every transportation problem. Big, over-engineered road projects waste precious funds, generate more driving and more pollution, and prioritize high-speed vehicle travelover the safety of every other road user.

Through our work directly with state DOTs over the last two years we know that some states are trying to change their practices to better reflect today’s realities: addressing climate change, dealing with shrinking funding sources, and new transportation options, for example. While state DOTs were created as highway agencies a century ago, their modern day missions are multimodal. Their policies and practices need to adapt.

With a ‘practical solutions’ approach, state DOTs can do just that, bringing their policies and practices into line with broader state goals around health & safety, equity, sustainability, and economic opportunity. We started our series on practical solutions with two posts from Transportation for America Director Beth Osborne, who sets the stage by looking at the big picture.

  1. Don’t hate the state (DOT): They’re just solving the wrong problem: How did state DOTs get to where we are today and why should we bother trying to fix such agencies instead of just throwing out the whole system and starting over?
  2. How a singular focus on speed leads state DOTs to overspend and overbuild: We cover four of the most frequent struggles we’ve heard from practitioners during our work with state DOTs, and as the title suggests, they mostly have to do with a focus on allowing cars to always travel fast.

With the background taken care of we walked through seven different areas that state DOTs need to address to save money, accomplish their full missions, and actually create a transportation system that meets the needs of citizens in this century. These three posts summarize a series of more technical white papers that we developed as a result of our work with state DOTs.

  1.  Building a better transportation system starts long before breaking ground: In this post we cover changes to DOT culture & administrationproject scoping, and public engagement. Changes in these “upstream” practices can pay big dividends downstream as projects get closer to fruition.
  2. “Incorrect assumptions lie at the root of every failure”: State DOTs design and fund projects based on a set of assumptions that are often taken for granted. But it’s not the 1940s anymore; states need to re-evaluate their use of level-of-service and other design assumptions.
  3. If that road feels out of place, that’s probably because it is: States can build transportation networks that match the surrounding context and land use (instead of a one-highway-fits-all approach) and align their funding decisions with overall agency goals, even if that’s not the norm today.

And finally, we wrapped up the series with a concrete look at how one state is augmenting some of its practices. While there are a handful of states that are on the forefront of this work—and we cite many of them in our white papers—Tennessee provides a helpful illustration of how states are taking their mission to build a safer, more equitable, and more multimodal transportation system to heart.

  1. How Tennessee DOT is turning Complete Streets policy into practice: TDOT was the first of nine DOTs we engaged during this two-year long project working directly with states on practical solutions. Since then, they have taken (and continue to take) steps to update practices across the department to make roads safer for everyone.

How Tennessee DOT is turning Complete Streets policy into practice

State DOTs have a major role to play in reversing the nation’s epidemic of pedestrian deaths. But that can be hard to do when most DOTs are still set up to build roads that prioritize high-speed car travel, even if that jeopardizes the safety of some of the people using those roads. Tennessee DOT is working to change that through a comprehensive approach to Complete Streets.

This is the sixth and final post in a series about states that are finding success through what’s known as practical solutions, a way for transportation departments to meet changing demands and plan, design, construct, operate, and maintain context-sensitive transportation networks that work for all modes of travel. Read the firstsecondthirdforth, or fifth post.

State DOTs were created to build highways, and while their missions are broadening, most still largely operate as highway agencies thanks to policies, standards, and funding mechanisms that have been in place for decades. These institutional practices are difficult to change, but change is necessary to reverse the nation’s epidemic of pedestrian deaths.

We have encountered a number of states that have adopted Complete Streets policies in order to make their roads safer for everyone who uses them, only to find that nothing really changes. DOTs still build the same dangerous roads because the practices and assumptions that prioritize high-speed vehicle travel are so deeply embedded. The policies change but the practices don’t.

So how can a state DOT actually make meaningful changes? They have to bring a Complete Streets approach into all of the internal machinery that makes their agency run. This process of reexamining every facet of how they operate is exactly the kind of comprehensive approach that we call practical solutions.

For an example of this comprehensive approach, see exhibit A: Tennessee DOT. TDOT was the first of nine DOTs we worked with on practical solutions. At that time, TDOT had adopted a “multimodal access” policy to improve safety and access for people walking, biking, and taking transit, but recognized that the policy alone would have limited impact. TDOT has since taken (and continues to take) steps to update its practices across the department to make roads safer for everyone, like giving staff tools to change how they design roads, finding opportunities to improve safety even in routine repaving projects, and coming up with better ways to prioritize investments.

Here are some of the ways TDOT is working to change—steps every DOT should take.

Asking the right questions during scoping and design

When too little time is spent conducting field research and engaging stakeholders upfront, states end up defining the purpose of a project too narrowly, potentially missing opportunities to change the design of the road to improve safety or access for people traveling by modes other than a car.

Last year, TDOT took action to address this by publishing a new Multimodal Project Scoping Manual. It also added a new multimodal design chapter and multimodal standard drawings to its roadway design standards to help staff make key decisions in the early stages of a project. Together, these resources provide guidance on which types of travelers should be prioritized based on the community context and how to use a flexible design approach that responds to those needs.

The standard drawings, in particular, are crucial. While many state DOTs rely on such drawings for roadway design, most do not have a comprehensive library of drawings with Complete Streets features, putting the onus on engineers to incorporate those features. TDOT’s standard drawings now provide engineers with a straight forward tool to incorporate those facilities.

Many DOT engineers prefer to rely on planning office guidance, do not have the experience to choose a design that will work well for people walking or biking in a given context, or don’t feel confident that their leadership will back them up if they do. 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 their projects from the beginning.

Looking for opportunities with every type of project

TDOT’s new scoping guidance is a great step toward getting features like sidewalks, crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, or bicycle facilities included in larger capital projects when they’re needed. However, state DOTs rarely put the same level of consideration into routine repaving projects, which make up a huge portion of a DOT’s work. Roadway repair projects are typically funded through different pots of money and have a more streamlined process with less community engagement. As a result, most states simply default to repaving a road with the same layout it had previously.

But TDOT has recognized that this approach to routine repair is a major missed opportunity. States can often improve conditions for people walking and biking at relatively low cost when they resurface a road—for example, by restriping the road with narrower lanes to slow down traffic or adding a bike lane. Unfortunately, without taking the time to engage the public or the local agencies first, the state may not know what changes would be beneficial or needed until it is too late to include them in the project.

To bring more of these opportunities to light, TDOT recently switched from a one-year list of upcoming projects to a three-year list they share more proactively with regional and local agencies so they have the chance to raise needs that could be addressed as a part of the project (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 makes it so both TDOT and local stakeholders can raise a need or opportunity in time to integrate it into an upcoming project’s scope, and it has already resulted in better coordination. For example, cities have been able to raise upcoming utility projects to coordinate the timing with TDOT’s resurfacing projects, reducing costs to both the state and the locality by avoiding tearing up the road twice in short succession. It’s a clear win-win, but few other DOTs have taken this step.

Prioritizing the most important needs

Many DOTs haven’t done the legwork to measure the things that matter for people walking and biking in a comprehensive way. As a result, when it comes to evaluating which projects to fund, they can’t sufficiently prioritize those needs. As we have discussed previously, level-of-service (a measure of vehicle delay) has been the dominant performance measure for roadway design, and continues to drive transportation agencies toward overbuilt, expensive, car-oriented highways and sprawling development.

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, based on 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 high pedestrian activity if conditions were safer (based on population density and proximity to schools, retail, jobs, and transit). I.e, would people walk here if we made the street safer for them to do so?
  4. Supply: An evaluation of the road’s existing 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 for TDOT, it has major potential to elevate needed investments for people walking and biking, helping TDOT put their multimodal access policy into practice. TDOT could (and perhaps should) 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 choose to place a greater emphasis on equity for a given program. It’s a helpful, straightforward framework that other states should adopt, and TDOT was able to develop it in-house.

While TDOT still has work to do to make Tennessee’s roads safe for everyone, they are moving in the right direction with the steps above.

For more examples from TDOT and other leading states, see the in-depth memos.


Smart Growth America and the Governors’ Institute on Community Design has helped a small group of state departments of transportation question and assess the underlying assumptions that lead many states toward giant highway solutions for every transportation problem.

We have found states that are eager to figure out a better way and find innovative and flexible ways to meet users’ needs that cost less to build and maintain. And we’ve worked to help them identify barriers and find solutions. The following memos are the outcome of that work—what we call ‘practical solutions’—that delve into common areas of reform that we identified.

Download each of the memos individually below or all at once with the download link to the left.

Updating agency administration and culture

Successful DOTs will need to provide unwavering leadership and support in rolling out a practical solutions approach. Prioritizing the efficient use of limited funds, the safety of all users, and smaller impacts and footprints will take a significant amount of effort, dedication, and time. Implementing practical solutions includes providing direction to supervisory and management staff that all staff will be held accountable in annual reviews and supplying the training and mentoring necessary to apply this approach. New performance metrics for the outcomes of projects to the system will need to be defined, measured, and reported.

Getting project scopes right

Tailoring a project to a well-defined understanding of the problem or need helps agencies consider potential solutions beyond using maximum design standards by default. This helps avoid over-engineered project scopes that are high in cost, high in environmental impact, and that may induce travel demand requiring further intervention and expenditure. It also allows state DOTs to bring considerations for the safety of all roadway users, including pedestrians and bicyclists, into projects early enough to be part of the core project scope, rather than secondary to vehicle needs.

Improving public engagement

State DOT leadership and staff generally understand the importance of robust community engagement. However, that level and quality of engagement happens less frequently in practice because it is expensive and time consuming to conduct for every project. In reality, DOTs generally go to the public seeking approval and buy-in for a concept staff have already developed, rather than to seeking meaningful input that could change their approach.

Reevaluating level-of-service

Level-of-Service (LOS) has been the dominant performance measure for roadway design, and continues to drive transportation agencies toward overbuilt, expensive, car-oriented highways and sprawling development. No statement encouraging design flexibility and innovation or new design guidance will shift practices away from over-designing roadways unless state DOTs take steps to change expectations around LOS. DOTs can change guidance on LOS applications by (1) relaxing LOS standards in urban/urbanizing contexts, (2) changing the weighting of LOS in comparison to other measures in urban environments, and (3) consider alternative performance measures to LOS, like vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Addressing assumptions and expanding flexibility

Typical engineering standards are built around the objective of moving vehicles quickly through an area, and engineers generally default to using the maximum ends of the ranges in their design standards. These standards were developed for a specific purpose when we were building the interstate and national highway system, but many states continue to apply them to all projects regardless of the context. State DOTs should consider the aspects of the transportation planning process that have become obstacles to cost-effective, common sense designs and solutions. They include predictions around transportation needs for 20 years into the future, how models are used and what data they rely on, and rigid design guidelines.

How to address land use and context

Transportation agencies do not and should not play the leading role in land use decisions, but they cannot ignore local land use and development decisions either or dismiss them completely as someone else’s responsibility. Land use and development has significant ramifications for the costs to deliver and maintain the state’s transportation system. Priorities will be different for a state-maintained roadway where it serves as a town main street compared to five miles away in a transitional commercial area outside of town; the design and operation of the road should reflect those differences.

Prioritizing projects based on outcomes

No transportation agency will ever have the resources to complete every project on their list so they need a way to choose projects that generate the greatest benefits within statewide transportation priority areas. And the public and other stakeholders are not as trusting as they once were—they want to see that taxpayer dollars are producing results. Successful states are 1) articulating their goals, 2) evaluating proposed transportation projects to ensure they are well-connected to those goals, 3) tracking how those projects perform after they are built, and 4) communicating each of these steps to their stakeholders.

For more information on practical solutions, download the white papers or reach out to us about providing assistance in your state.