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Evaluating how transportation design can effectively maintain or improve the social, economic, and environmental functions of Main Street


Many of our nation’s communities, especially smaller towns and historic suburbs, have a distinct Main Street, a concentration of buildings sometimes a few stories high, that stretch on both sides of the community’s primary street for several blocks. Typically, the first floor is retail with warehousing, offices, meeting halls, or residential quarters occupying the upper floors. Civic buildings, plazas, town squares, sidewalks, and other public spaces contribute to the structure of a typical Main Street by providing for social and political discourse and a catalyst for economic activity.

Frequently, Main Street may serve as the community’s downtown and as the economic, social, and political focal point of a much larger, region. A community’s Main Street is often a segment of a state or county roadway, an artery that connects the heart of a community with its adjacent neighborhoods, its hinterlands, and the commercial centers in distant towns and cities. Consequently, Main Streets can carry a significant amount of traffic, much of which is only passing through the community oblivious to the other critically important local functions of the street, while others serve mostly local community traffic.

Although state and county transportation departments usually consider local needs, their traditional mandate has mostly been oriented to moving regional vehicular traffic through town. Increasingly, transportation departments have begun to realize that Main Street performs several competing functions. While it remains a primary responsibility of a transportation agency to move regional and local traffic efficiently and safely along Main Street and supply access to adjacent properties, the agency must also avoid, minimize, or compensate for adverse impacts to the social, economic, and environmental functions of the street.

For a community to remain economically and socially viable, Main Street must provide more than mobility for only motorized vehicles, it must provide multi-modal mobility and access that generate opportunities for robust economic, social, and political intercourse. Although there has been much speculation about how a Main Street should be designed to achieve these often conflicting goals, little research has been done to verify their effectiveness.

The lack of research, however, hasn’t prevented urban planners, designers, and officials from trying various techniques, including combinations of historic preservation and interpretation, streetscape improvements, adding public art, creating entertainment districts, hosting civic celebrations, improving housing, promoting retail and commercial development, and other interventions to make Main Street more socially livable and economically dynamic.

Sometimes these interventions have worked or worked briefly, or worked in only selected locations. Sometimes they have simply failed. Still, understanding what generates social and economic vitality on Main Street and what does not, and how transportation agencies can be an effective catalyst in generating that vitality, remains, largely, a mystery.


For transportation agencies that are being asked to support (or at least not hinder) maintaining or improving the social, economic, and environmental functions of Main Street, it is critical to know which actions taken by a transportation agency are effective and under what circumstances they will succeed in achieving the social and economic goals their proponents desire.

The research program should identify and define effective and proven performance metrics for evaluating Main Street success, including especially those related to its transportation, social, economic, and environmental functions. Using those metrics, the researcher should select for further study, at least five implemented Main Street interventions which included the substantial involvement of a state or county transportation agency. The selected Main Streets must have available pre- and post-intervention transportation, social, and economic data as necessary to conduct the investigation. The result of the investigation should identify the effectiveness of transportation improvements had on the achievement of the transportation, social and economic performance measures established for Main Street.


Throughout the nation, state and county departments of transportation are regularly asked to improve the transportation or environmental performance of Main Streets. Such improvements frequently raise questions and concerns about the social and economic impacts they will create. A better understanding of which types and under what circumstances transportation improvements will maintain or improve the social, economic and environmental performance of Main Street is needed to not only effectively implement transportation improvements but also necessary to garner public, regulatory, and political support while effectively and prudently leveraging agency budgets, schedules, and staffing.

Sponsoring Committee:AFB40, Landscape and Environmental Design
Research Period:24 - 36 months
Research Priority:Medium
Date Posted:01/15/2019
Date Modified:02/08/2019
Index Terms:Streetscape, Streets, Sustainable development, Socioeconomic development,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Pedestrians and Bicyclists
Planning and Forecasting

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