FHWA MUTCD manual needs modernization - to remove confused term 'freeway'

March 27, 2011

The word 'freeway' in road signs is a source of confusion at a time of increased toll financing. The Washington Post's Dr Gridlock gives this example, a letter from Paula Wiley of Silver Spring: "If you are driving the Intercounty Connector heading east and approaching the current final exit, the sign says the 'Freeway ends shortly.' Really? FREEway? For whom?"

Dr Gridlock had to explain to Ms Wiley that the Maryland DOT is following the FHWA's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) which defines a full grade separated, access controlled road as a 'freeway.'

In most of America now an access controlled and grade separated highway is known by its route number or called an expressway, a tollway, a parkway, a toll road, an interstate, or just a highway....anything BUT a 'freeway.'

The term 'freeway' isn't used by regular folks most places outside the west coast and Texas, except among professional engineers and anti-roads groups.

And it is a loaded word.

A PR guy here once told me: "Please, we don't build freeways in Maryland. Freeways are the large, ugly roads of Los Angeles. We build highways, here or expressways or parkways, please never freeways."

Among serious supporters of road improvements the word 'freeway' is taboo.

Besides there's the Paula Wiley factor - that 'freeway' suggests a 'way' or road that's free, so a 'toll freeway' is a logical nonsense. It is either toll or free, people sensibly think. It can't be both.

So the MUTCD is doubly wrong in the definitions it lays down (p14 of latest 2009 edition):

"Expressway - a divided highway with partial control of access

"Freeway--a divided highway with full control of access."

No Expressway is an MUTCD 'expressway'

Every named Expressway in the country has full control of access not the 'partial' control suggested in the MUTCD definition:

 - in New York the Cross Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn-Queens, Van Wyck, Long Island, Bruckner, Gowanus, Major Deagan Expressways

- in Chicago the Stevenson, Kennedy, Dan Ryan, Bishop Ford and Borman Expressways,

- in Philadelphia the Schuykill, Delaware Expressway,

- in Boston the Southeast Expressway, and the Northeast Expressway.

The same is true in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and many other places.

Rarely does an Expressway conform to the MUTCD definition of "partial control of access."

Almost every named Expressway in the country has full access control.

It's time for the sign writers to cease using terms at odds with public understanding and usage.

The MUTCD needs to revisit these definitions.

Perhaps the ambiguous and anti-road term 'freeway' should be dropped entirely.

After all, no road is really free. If motorists don't pay for it in tolls it has to be paid for in taxes.



ADDITION 1: a loyal reader in the Washington DC metro area emailed us saying "we have plenty of roads classified as expressways which lack full control of access." He cited these 'expressways' that DO conform with ther MUTCD definitions:

- US29 (Columbia Pike) between MD650 (White Oak) and I-70
- VA7100 (Fairfax County Parkway)
- George Washington Memorial Parkway in Fairfax and Arlington Counties and in DC
- Suitland Parkway in DC and Prince George's County
- DC295 (Kenilworth Avenue)
- MD5 (Branch Avenue) in Prince George's County
- MD4 (Pennsylvania Avenue Extended) also in Prince George's County
- US50/US301 on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's County

COMMENT: certainly there are highways like this that meet the MUTCD definition of expressways. Close to TOLLROADSnews outside the city limits of Frederick north into Pennsylvania and south to Virginia is another example in US15 of what the MUTCD calls an expressway - it's a divided highway 2x2 lanes with pretty good access control - few frontages - and the occasional grade separation, but many intersections at grade.

But unlike the fully access controlled and completely grade separated Expressways we cited in NYC, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere not one of these MUTCD 'expressways' is actually known as an expressway or named an Expressway. They are named by their route number, or they're a Parkway or an Avenue, never an Expressway.

Such an MUTCD 'expressway' is best described as a divided highway or a surface arterial.

Another correspondent suggested it is desirable to encourage the use of the British term motorway or the European 'autoroute, autobahn...' But those terms are obsolete. They hark back to a time when animal power (horse, oxen etc) was still an element of road traffic and motor or automobile traffic needed roads free of animal drawn vehicles to travel safely at a consistent high speed.

Anyway we're not suggesting new terminology, just proposing that roadway signage conform to existing public understanding of words, rather than confuse people with geek-speak signs, like "FREEWAY ENDS" at the end of a tollroad.

ADDITION 2: a director of communications says there are several named Expressways that do conform with the MUTCD expressway definition in California. He cites the Foothill Expressway in Los Altos CA as an example and he provides this link: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/22870665

But he says in Texas it is mostly engineers who want to use the term Freeway, but that most new highways are called Expressways. CTRMA for example in the Austin TX area is building a Manor Expressway (US290), we guess because the term conforms best to public usage and expectations.

ADDITION 3: Andy Battles of Oakland CA writes: "Being born and raised in California, the term "Toll Freeway" is not an oxymoron to me. As you noted in Addition 2 to your article, not only is there the Foothill Expwy in Los Altos, CA, there is a full Expressway network in Santa Clara County (www.expressways.info), which was created not quite to freeway (Interstate?) standards when county supervisors got impatient for federal funding in the early '60s, all of which have quite limited access (though not complete). There are a few of these county roads that meet these standards in the Los Angeles area as well, the only one I can think of being La Cienaga Blvd over the Baldwin Hills, ~33.991765, -118.366570 (the site of the catastrophic dam failure).

"I'd always heard there was a distinction in Florida between "Freeways" (that were free) and "Expressways" (that probably had a toll), and in the northeast usually "Expressways" were free and "Turnpikes" had tolls....

"I guess all I'm proposing is that the MUCTD manual not name a standard, but define what the terms mean in different regions around the country."

TOLLROADSnews 2011-03-27 ADDITIONS 2011-03-28 15:00 2011-04-01

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