ATLANTA -- For too long now, cars have dictated the design of residential subdivision streets, with little consideration given to the people who live there, some building industry officials say.

Ironically, the downturn in the home-building industry could give developers the opening needed to persuade local government officials to change their priorities, according to experts at a seminar here on street design sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders at its annual convention this week.

If the push to re-prioritize succeeds, subdivisions built in this decade will have narrower streets, limited on-street parking and, in some cases, no sidewalks, said Joseph R. Molinaro, the home builder group's director of land development services.

Local land planning restrictions are being shelved in some communities and more change is on the way because developers will have to start challenging subdivision regulations to survive tough times, said Denver landscape architect David Jensen.

"During the 1990s, especially during this down period, {developers} have got to be able to persuade their communities to let them do stronger projects that will market better, so they will be around when the market comes back," Jensen said.

Roads serving residential neighborhoods rarely need to exceed 22 feet to 24 feet, yet some jurisdictions insist on minimum widths of up to 45 feet, Molinaro said.

"Not only {is a wider street} more expensive to build, it adds to storm water runoff, it adds to maintenance and it encourages traffic to travel faster, which is the exact opposite of what we want in our residential communities," Molinaro said.

The wider streets, Molinaro said, are engineered primarily with cars in mind. "Somewhere, 20 or 30 years ago, traffic engineers got the upper-hand and convinced a lot of local city councils and planning commissions that traffic and transportation were more important than any other element."

Yet, he said, neighborhood streets serve a variety of other purposes overlooked by local government planners, in that they create a visual setting for the community, an entryway to each house, walkways for pedestrians, meeting places for residents and even places for children to play.

Traffic engineers do not limit their vision of streets to little more than conduits for cars, said Juan M. Morales, an official with the Institute of Transportation Engineers. His members, he said, distinguish between the design requirements for arterials, collector streets and residential access streets.

New communities built to outmoded street requirements create a "negative selling point" that turns off home buyers, Jensen said. Well-designed streets, by comparison, are a "positive marketing tool."

Steve James, a Boulder, Colo., land planner, said the mismatch between the scale of streets and the homes they serve became more pronounced in the past decade, when innovations like the zero-lot-line property and the shallow-wide lot gained acceptance.

"The problem we have had with the small lots of the 1980s is that the street is scaled to the large lots of the 1950s," he said.

Aesthetics aside, over-engineered streets also exacerbate the home buyer affordability problem, Molinaro said. Building a 20-foot-wide street instead of a 30-foot-wide one, saves one-third on the cost of pavement and grading alone, he said.

Street maintenance costs born by the taxpayers also drop 10 percent when narrower streets are built, Jensen said.

When communities began rejecting dirt lanes in favor of paved roads after World War II, the only guide local planners had at the time was the standard for major thoroughfares, which remain in effect today, Molinaro said.

In the Washington area, Molinaro said, Northern Virginia subdivision streets are among the worst offenders because they are driven by state highway specifications.

Mandatory residential street widths in Fairfax County range from 30 feet for a small cul-de-sac, loop street or dead end up to 38 feet for streets of 40 to 300 houses, according to the land planning firm of Greenhorne & O'Mara.

In many cases, James said, prevailing street width guidelines are "ruled by a worst case condition, such as the party on New Year's Eve. The traffic count {generated by such an event} might be appropriate for a collector road nearby but not for the final access road or local streets on which someone lives."

The circumference of cul-de-sac turnarounds also is at times defined by outdated ideas, Molinaro said, when they are designed to accommodate the turning radius of delivery trucks or emergency vehicles used years ago which were much larger than their modern counterparts.

Moreover, communities could reduce the cul-de-sac size if garbage trucks and other service vehicles were expected to back out of the cul-de-sac, he said.

Locally, that practice lead to a tragedy here last spring. A two-year-old girl was killed when a trash truck backed over her while leaving a secluded Dunn Loring subdivision. Such accidents could be prevented, Molinaro said, by requiring a driver's aide to get out and direct the vehicle while it backs out of a street.

Excessive parking requirements also need re-examination, Jensen said. Subdivision standards that require parking lanes on both sides of a street provide enough parking for seven to 12 cars per single-family house, when the driveway and garage space are counted, he said.

"Residential streets could be play areas. It was only in the 1920s that we started putting parking along them and required wide streets that they became unsafe," Jensen said.

One solution to the parking problem, now gaining some popularity, is the return of the alley. The 12 foot swath of land needed to deliver cars to backyard garages is more than offset by eliminating the sets of 8-foot parking lanes on the streets bounding either side of a block, Molinaro said.

Land planners are split over the necessity of sidewalks, Molinaro said. Those who advocate their elimination typically do so where low-traffic streets serve the same purpose or a network of paths run through a community's open space, he said.

Other landscape architects, however, encourage the inclusion of sidewalks to help ensure the safety of smaller children, promote a greater sense of community and as an invitation to people to walk, Molinaro said.