How 20 Years of Toole Design Has Shaped the Industry

2003 was a momentous year for transportation-related events. The last “original” Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the production lines, the final Concorde flight touched down, and sadly the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster claimed the lives of seven astronauts. That same year, Toole Design opened its doors with a mission of bringing a new, people-focused approach to transportation planning and engineering.   

While we are focused firmly on the next 20 years and the things we hope to accomplish, we can’t resist a quick trip down memory lane to recall some of the ways Toole Design has already made a lasting impact on the transportation world.  

Defining Safe Routes to School

From day one, Toole Design has been at the forefront of Safe Routes to Schools initiatives in the United States. Our early involvement allowed us to shape FHWA’s program guidance when the Federal program was established in 2005, and to create many of the early resources available from the National Center for Safe Routes to School 

The experience of running several state and local SRTS programs for more than a decade (and we are still running them in places such as Virginia, Alameda County, etc.) means we can continue to innovate and help expand the boundaries of the program, for example through Vision Zero for Youth, and the Safe Routes for Seniors program currently underway in Los Angeles. We haven’t been shy about taking programs like this to scale – our work with the City of Austin demonstrated that you can plan, design, and build proven safety countermeasures around EVERY school in a major school district.  

Supporting the Rise of Bikeshare and Micromobility

Toole Design played a pivotal role in the emergence and evolution of bikesharing in North America. Watching the initial roll-out of systems around 2010 inspired us to undertake a groundbreaking research project for FHWA that identified critical operational and policy issues associated with successful bikesharing programs. We backed that up with dozens of feasibility studies for new and expanding bikesharing systems; quickly embraced dockless bikes, e-bikes, and scooters into an expanded definition of micromobility; and pioneered the establishment of Mobility Hubs in cities including Boston and Los Angeles. Today, we are proud to partner with the North American Bikesharing and Scootersharing Association (NABSA) to develop state of the practice annual reports on industry trends and issues that are based on groundbreaking data collection and analysis 

Creating Innovative Design Guidance

When Jennifer Toole established the company in 2003, adding “Design” to the eponymous company name was more than just aspirational for a team better known for planning services. She understood the significance of being able to put projects on the ground and institutionalize best practices in roadway design by writing the design guides and manuals that move us all forward. She recently wrote: 

“Our work has had a deep and lasting impact on communities – directly through the projects we’ve designed and built, but also indirectly through the design manuals we have written and that have served as references for nearly every pedestrian and bicycle facility that has been constructed in the U.S. in the last 20 years. Starting with the AASHTO Bike and Pedestrian guides (multiple editions) and then continuing with major urban street design manuals, such as the Boston Complete Streets Manual, Seattle Streets Illustrated, and Los Angeles Complete Street Design Manual, each of which has represented a giant step forward in communicating how to design streets for all users.”   

Leading the Way with Separated Bike Lanes

Nowhere is proof of this concept clearer than in relation to acceptance of separated bikeways on the streets of the United States and Canada. These were a non-starter in most U.S. and Canadian cities until the late 2000s in part because of a lack of authoritative guidance. A handful of cities “experimented” with designs and the information almost made it into the 2012 AASHTO Guide. Undeterred, Toole Design researched and wrote MassDOT’s breakthrough Separated Bike Lane Planning and Design Guide in 2015, which quickly became the benchmark for bikeway design; the next edition of the AASHTO Bike Guide will draw heavily from the MassDOT Guide.   

Our engineers and landscape architects have put this guidance into practice with transformative bikeway designs throughout North America. In fact, Toole Design staff contributed to 5 of the 9 projects listed in PeopleForBikes’ Best New U.S. Bike Lanes in 2022.   

Centering Ethics, Equity, and Empathy

One constant feature of Toole Design’s work throughout these 20 years has been our values. Although we only formally adopted the values of Ethics, Equity, and Empathy in 2019, you can see them in evidence from day one. The 2009 Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan, for example, created an equity framework that’s still in use and widely copied today. The Edmonton Safe Mobility Strategy was the first Toole Design project to be built specifically around the New E’s framework; it also heralds one of the next big leaps forward for the transportation world: recognizing that transportation is but a means to achieving the ends of equity, safety, health, sustainable economic and community development, and climate resilience. 

The Next 20 Years

At this 20th anniversary milestone, we can confidently say we are proud of our contribution to the advancement of active transportation into the mainstream of the industry… and we are absolutely not going to rest on our laurels. Much remains to be done and we’re committed to leading the industry headlong into the challenges of tackling climate change, equity, health, safety, and more.  

Our first 20 years have been defined by bold moves in an evolving industry. Now it’s time to imagine the moves that will define the next 20. We can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen in the coming decades, but we know we need some big shifts from the status quo to continue to transform our communities and the transportation systems that support them. We also know that there is no time to waste.  

To that end, we are planning a series of Changemaker initiatives this year to imagine a carbon-neutral transportation system that is safe and just, and to identify ways in which our work can ensure those outcomes. Watch for more details on how Toole Design and our collaborators and colleagues can be the changemakers that our industry and our communities need. 

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