A city cannot function well without great streets. City streets serve a variety of purposes as they connect different parts of the city and areas beyond, allowing for the movement of people and commerce, while occasionally providing space for gathering and activity.
In addition to automobile transportation, our streets must allow for the comfortable movement of people through other modes of transportation such as pedestrian, bicycle, scooter, and transit. These streets should have character and create places where people are comfortable and want to stop and interact. A great place has streets that support parents walking their kids to a neighborhood school or park, stopping for coffee or ice cream on the way back home, and biking to their work. Just as there are certain places that support this behavior, there are certain streets that can support or hinder this behavior.
The City has a network of arterial, collector, and local streets that connect commercial centers, downtown, and local businesses to interstates and railroads for freight movement, and provide connections between homes and places of employment, commerce, entertainment, and recreation. Interstates and highways create our regional transportation network and serve the purpose of efficient vehicular movement of goods and people, but often create barriers for other types of mobility.
Transportation decisions in the mid-20th century, focused on improving the efficiency of our streets for cars with little thought towards other modes of transportation. Roanoke, as well as most other cities during this time, lost site of the important interaction between streets and places. Since adoption of a Complete Streets policy in 2008, the city has shifted investment in transportation to projects that include all forms of mobility. As we move forward in the next twenty years, we must continue to undo the previous sixty years of prioritizing and investing solely in the movement of automobiles.
The City has seen a rebirth of downtown and neighborhood center areas in recent years. Coupled with the growth of our greenway system and desire for our residents to walk, ride bikes, and use other modes of transportation, we are witnessing the resurgence of truly connected neighborhoods in the City. Thoughtful street design and strategic investment in great streets can help continue this trend.
How did we get to the transportation system we have today?
The transportation systems in cities today have changed greatly over the last 100 years. If you look close enough, you may see remnants of an older transportation system. In the early 1900’s, people relied on carriages, walking, biking, and public transit (street cars). Because of the reliance on walking for transportation, residents often lived closer to city centers because of the proximity to jobs and commercial needs like markets. Also, the presence of pedestrians in the street was much more prevalent with other modes needing to move around those walking. The opposite of what we see today.
The first wave of growth in Roanoke was due, in part, to the creation of the streetcar. The City of Roanoke’s first steam-run streetcar was created in 1889. This allowed people to live farther away from the city center and still reach essential destinations like downtown and their place of employment. Streets at this point in time were developed to accommodate slow moving traffic. Due to the introduction of the streetcar, cities replaced gravel roads with stone blocks, bricks, or asphalt. City streets were often built with better street surfaces in comparison to streets in rural areas, which were often just dirt paths.
By the 1920s the development pattern that shaped much of Roanoke was in place. Neighborhood centers grew close to streetcar stops with buildings located close to the street for pedestrian customers. Schools were located within the neighborhoods among homes which lined narrow streets with sidewalks.
By 1925, streetcars were disappearing because of the invention of buses and Henry Ford’s Model T car. This was not unique to Roanoke with 50% of all U.S. cities using buses as their sole service of public transportation in 1937. By 1948, the last streetcar lines, which serviced South Roanoke and Raleigh Court, were completely shut down to make way for the automobile.
Bicyclists and railroad companies had called for better street surfaces since the early 1890’s. However, street improvements happened on a larger scale with the introduction of the automobile and buses. Street surfaces like stone and brick were replaced with more durable surfaces like concrete to accommodate for motor vehicles.
Post WWII changed much of how we developed our transportation system. With the post war economic boom also came the baby boom, which meant more people and growing families. This was the beginning of urban sprawl and the “American Dream” notion of a family owning a home in a subdivision with two cars and a dog. This kind of development of “neighborhoods” is much more of what we see today. More houses were built in suburbs with no sidewalks or multimodal connections to businesses, which meant a greater need for vehicles. This in turn, meant wider and busier roads that accommodate more vehicles from farther distances.
Vehicles, which were once viewed as a luxury for the rich quickly became an essential item in every household and allowed the continued sprawl of single family homes into rural areas. As such, our transportation system began to prioritize automobile movement over pedestrian and other modes of travel.
Sprawling neighborhoods were built around car movement. Streets were wider and interstates were being built to accommodate the increase in vehicular traffic. Unfortunately, many city neighborhoods were chopped up with the development of the interstates. Small neighborhood streets were cut off from other streets limiting connections. New highways pulled commerce away from traditional neighborhood centers forcing local shops to close or struggle to stay afloat. Residents were no longer within walking distances of grocery stores, jobs, shopping or other commercial needs. As transportation funds were spent on additional lanes and frequent road improvements, less money was being spent on sidewalks and other accommodations for pedestrians.
While a primary function of our transportation is to provide for the efficient movement of people in and around the city and the ability to transport goods and products, this can no longer be done at the expense of great places. The City of Roanoke will consider efficiency of transportation, but value resiliency.
History shows us that resiliency favors creating multimodal, pedestrian oriented streets that provide for multiple connections within and between neighborhoods.
Our transportation network is made up of various infrastructure (e.g., streets, highways, railroads, airports) and modes that use that infrastructure, particularly streets (car, transit, pedestrian, etc.). The transportation network also functions on various levels based on the need for people to move or goods to be shipped within neighborhoods, within the city, other parts of the region, other parts of the state, country and even internationally. While this plan focuses largely on our local and regional transportation systems, it is important to keep in mind the broader links that are also important.
Roanoke and Salem Transportation Map | VDOT
The City of Roanoke’s Department of Transportation focuses solely on transportation within city limits. However, they work in conjunction with other organizations that view broader transportation systems. The Roanoke Valley Alleghany Regional Commission (RVARC) works with multiple localities and state organizations to coordinate regional prioritization of transportation projects. The Roanoke Regional Airport Commission also works with federal administrations.
There are also federal and statewide transportation planning groups that work with localities and regional commissions to coordinate transportation projects. These include:
- Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)
- Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit (DRPT)
- Federal Highway Administration
- Federal Aviation Administration
- Federal Transit Administration
Transportation funding and prioritization is coordinated among these many organizations. Most money comes from state and federal government. At the state level, projects are funded on a two-year application cycle with larger projects largely tied to issues with congestion. However, the Roanoke Region has limited congestion issues. This in turn makes state funding for large transportation projects difficult to obtain.
The city also receives an “Urban Allocation” from VDOT to maintain existing streets. Additionally, the city can receive funding for smaller projects through VDOTs cost share program. The city does fund small-scale complete street projects through the Capital Improvement Program.
Transportation Networks: Regional and State-Wide
At the state level, VDOT has moved to a practice that attempts to focus development, and therefore need for roads, in compact areas of each community. Reinforcing a compact development pattern, as opposed to a dispersed or sprawling development pattern, reduces the cost for construction and expansion of roads. These areas of more focused development are called Urban Development Areas (UDAs) and are intended to be of a size to allow sufficient area to meet projected residential and commercial growth in the locality for at least ten years (reference code § 15.2-2223.1).
UDAs also incorporate traditional neighborhood development, which seamlessly aligns with City Plan 2040’s focus on the complete neighborhood and complete street development patterns. Principles of traditional neighborhood developments are emphasized throughout the comprehensive plan. These principles prioritize pedestrians over vehicular movement, encourage mixed-use development and density around neighborhood centers, preserve natural areas, and create design standards that are human scale.
The City of Roanoke has designated the entire city as a UDA. At a regional level, the City of Roanoke is a destination hub for travelers and a major hub for commuters. The map below shows the commuting patterns in the region. The arrows show more people commute into the city rather than outside of the city.
The city also offers passenger air and rail travel for the region that connects our region to other cities within and outside of Virginia. While the traditional idea of commuting is traveling locally five days a week, the increase in remote work has changed how we think of commuting. Residents now have the ability to work remotely most days and some even utilize Amtrak to commute to larger cities like Washington DC when needed.
Corridors of Statewide Significance (CoSS) are vital to our regional transportation system due to their primary function for connecting regional activity centers, statewide travel, and even interstate travel. There are several CoSS’s that run through the City of Roanoke:
- Route 220/I-581 runs North to South from North Carolina to West Virginia
- Heartland Corridor mainly consists of Route 460 and runs East to West from Norfolk to Frankfurt, KY
- Crescent Corridor generally defined by I-81 but also consists of Route 11 and portions of Route 460 and runs along the Appalachian Mountains
The Corridors of Statewide Significance are designated for their connectivity across the region and state, their high volume, and their ability to support different modes of travel or freight. Within the City of Roanoke it is important to recognize these corridors still serve local needs and offer options for multiple modes of transportation. Some of these corridors, like I-81, are not good candidates for multimodal improvements. However, there are many sections, like Route 11 (which follows portions of Brandon Avenue, Grandin Road, Memorial Avenue, 13th Street, Campbell Avenue, Salem Avenue, and Williamson Road), that should allow for improved multimodal use. There is a constant balance between meeting the needs of regional commerce while maintaining streets that are safe and comfortable for biking and pedestrian use.
There are several needs for the Corridors of Statewide Significance identified by the Virginia Transportation Plan. The specific needs can be found in the VTrans plan for each corridor. Generally, issues within the Roanoke region were focused on limited to minor congestion, segments of roads with a higher number of crashes, and limited rail and transit options between surrounding cities. Our regional network has identified five areas of needs: corridor reliability/congestion, network connectivity, transportation demand management, modal choice, and walkable/bikeable places. As such, the policies and actions set forth should aim to address the needs identified in the VTrans Needs Assessment Report for the Roanoke Region.
While the VTrans plans do identify certain areas for congestion issues, it is important to recognize that congestion is very limited especially when considering other cities within Virginia. The map below, taken from the VTrans plan, shows the percent of time congested for peak PM hours. Most of the roads are a blue color, indicating those roads are congested less than 4.5% of time in peak PM hours.
Transportation Networks: Transit
In particular, regional transportation plans clearly show that there is a lack of access to activity centers outside of the city. As many city residents rely on transit for access to jobs and other destinations, expansion of the transit system or development of other transportation options is critical to improving mobility in the City. The map below shows the limitations of the current public transportation system throughout the region. Various activity centers, which could hold opportunities for employment, are unreachable by public transportation.
Even within the City, the Valley Metro Bus service has limited hours and does not operate on Sundays, which creates a gap for those seeking to use public transportation to reach activity centers.
Fortunately, the Valley Metro transit station, which also serves as the Greyhound bus station, is located within Downtown Roanoke with close proximity to the Amtrak station. As the transit station is centrally located and offers convenient connections to other activity centers, the transit station is an ideal location for the compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development pattern often touted as transit-oriented development. This pattern of development is already encouraged and existing within the City’s downtown.
Transportation Networks: Freight
Transportation of goods is crucial for the Roanoke Region. The top three industries in the Roanoke Region for output is wholesale trade, retail trade, and manufacturing and makes up almost 50% of the regions output. All three of which rely heavily on freight transportation. The City of Roanoke has easily accessible options for freight transportation. Highways such as in Interstate 81, US Routes 460, 11, and 220 are major roadways for freight movement.
Roanoke was once recognized as a railroad town and while we are beginning to move away from that association, our railroad system does offer connections for multiple routes and to ports at Hampton Roads. Additionally, the airport offers air freight with UPS and Fed Ex. The multiple modes of freight transportation creates an excellent opportunity to connect freight from one mode to the other. For example, our interstates can connect from businesses to the railroad and the railroad can then connect to ports.
With easy and accessible freight movement comes great opportunity for existing businesses to expand and new businesses to locate in the region. The map below shows freight accessibility for activity centers within the Roanoke Region. Most activity centers within the city are able to reach an arterial ramp within a six-minute drive. As the city moves forward, we should ensure that freight movement remains accessible. Freight movement may change as modes of transportation changes. As those changes occur, Roanoke should also adapt to different modes of freight movement in the years to come.
Transportation Networks: Local Street System (Great Places and Complete Streets)
Great places are accessible and conveniently located, active and engaging, comfortable and safe, and capitalize on community assets. A local street system that is well designed will support walkability, access to transit, and provide gathering spaces. When a great place also has great streets, it attracts people and the community flourishes.
Walkability is associated with increased office, residential, and retail rents, retail revenues, and for-sale residential values according to the Walk this Way report. Additionally, a report published by the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors found that households in transit sheds had more resilient property values. From an equity lens, this only adds to the number of reasons to make places walkable, bikeable, and accessible for public transit. Improving real estate values and resiliency helps fund vital services like public schools. Additionally, it allows for people without vehicles to move in multiple ways. This can open up opportunities for employment, healthy food, day cares, and much more.
While freight dependent industries often focus on highway accessibility, both knowledge based and local businesses place a high value on community-related transportation elements such as access to healthcare, recreational access, and mobility for older and physically challenged residents through complete streets. (VTrans Regional plan)
Great places draw people to an area but livability keeps them there. Quality of life and livability may look different depending on the person’s age. Working age groups like Millennials value multimodal commuting options while Boomers value aging in place. Trends show that younger generations value living in more urban areas and value multiple modes of transportation for commuting.
Complete Streets are streets designed and operated to enable safe use and support mobility for all users. Those include people of all ages and abilities, regardless of whether they are traveling as drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, or public transportation riders .
City Council adopted a Complete Streets Policy for the City of Roanoke recognizing the importance of good street design and requiring that complete street elements be included as part of various city infrastructure projects. Because of the importance of well-designed streets, it is extremely important to continue the development of Complete Streets. Transportation systems and streets serve multiple purposes and we must find a way to balance those needs, particularly in our Urban Development Areas (UDA).
Streets are classified in different ways to help define how they serve different purposes. All of which, with the exception of I-581/220 corridor, should be multimodal and follow the design guidelines. Roanoke’s street design guidelines call for: street trees, pedestrian and transit accommodations, appropriate lighting, bicycle and automobile accommodations, and signs.
Arterials – Provide mobility or the ability to get from one place to another place by efficiently moving a large volume of people. Travel modes that provide mobility include walking, cycling, public transit, taxi, automobile, or other motorized vehicle. However, the majority of travel on this type of street is by motorized vehicles that are traveling longer distances at higher speeds. Driveways that provide access to adjacent parcels should be minimized along arterials.
Collectors – Provide a combination of mobility, described above, and accessibility. Accessibility refers to the ability for people to reach desired goods, services, activities and destinations. In other words, half of the people using collectors are just passing through and the other half is accessing a destination served by that street. Vehicle speeds on collectors are typically between that of arterial and local streets. Driveways are more common along collectors than arterials.
Locals – Provide accessibility to residences, businesses, and other destinations that provide goods, services, or activities. Local streets constitute the majority of streets in the City. Vehicle speeds on local streets are typically low.
Limited Access – A limited access highway is especially designed for through traffic over which abutting properties have no direct access to the highway. Limited access highways include interstate system routes, interchanges and bypasses.
Priority: Improve regional transportation networks.
Support the development of complete streets and implementation of good street design throughout the region to help connect and expand a network of mobility options. Support the expansion of transit systems throughout the region to help provide access to activity centers.
Improvements should be made to limit crashes involving all users and all mobility types. Reduce crashes throughout the City with a focus on segments of roads identified as high crash rate areas in the Virginia Transportation.
Look at alternatives for reducing congestion. Widening arterial streets is disruptive (requiring acquisition of private property and long-term construction projects) and often results in attracting more traffic to the street, thus exacerbating the problem. Our focus will be improving existing infrastructure (such as timing of traffic signals), adding neighborhood connections, and expansion of sidewalks, bike lanes, and other multimodal infrastructure to streets at a fraction of the cost of widening streets and adding lanes.
Freight generating land uses can bring economic benefits to a region. Considering freight movement in conjunction with land use decisions can minimize adverse impacts to residents and the environment. In the future, changing modes and operations for freight may require additional planning.
Priority: Encourage street design and improvements that support the development of great places.
Regularly review street design guidelines and development regulations to increase efficiency of mobility for all users. Prioritize and advocate for street projects in the City’s CIP program and the Six Year Improvement Plan. Continue to advocate for funding from state and federal sources. Identify and regularly prioritize the city’s street projects in line with the biennial VDOT grant cycles and in line with the 5-year period for UDA assessment.
Create a connected multimodal network of streets that balances the needs of all users. Good pedestrian and bicycle facilities support good placemaking and can improve public health and reduce the use of trips completed by automobile.
The Corridors of Statewide Significance are generally designed for the high volume movement of goods and people across the region. Within the City of Roanoke it is important to recognize these corridors still serve local needs and should provide save travel for all users.
Create multimodal connections between activity centers and support transit oriented development around significant transit stops and support compact development around neighborhood centers.