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Slow the Cars

We design our streets like roads, as if their primary function—and sometimes their sole function—is the movement of automobiles.

Many people don’t grasp the difference between a street and a road. They think the terms are interchangeable, and rightly so. In the United States, we’ve spent decades—and trillions of dollars—blurring the distinctions.

To make our cities financially strong and successful, we need to reclaim the lost art of building great streets [1], and we must empower our transportation professionals [2] to build high-performance roadways. There is a serious difference between those two pursuits.

Streets: The function of a street is to serve as a platform for building wealth. On a street, we’re attempting to grow the complex ecosystem of businesses and homes that produces community wealth. In these environments, people (outside of their automobiles) are the indicator species of success. Successful streets are environments where humans and human interaction flourish.

Roads: In contrast, the function of a road is to connect productive places to one another. You can think of a road as a refinement of the railroad—a road on rails—where people board in one place, depart in another and there is a high speed connection between the two.

With a street, we’re trying to build a place. With a road, we’re trying to get from one place to another. Streets emphasize wealth creation. Roads are about movement.

Street

Road

Why Is This Distinction Important?

Designing our streets as if they were roads creates three fundamental and interrelated problems.

First, it’s really expensive. We spend a lot more money on everything from engineering to asphalt when we overbuild our streets. And because poorly designed streets suppress demand for biking and walking—two lower cost alternatives to driving—they actually induce even more demand for transportation spending.

Second, poorly designed streets drive down the taxpayer’s return-on-investment. In general, the more auto-oriented a development pattern is, the higher the cost to provide public services and the lower the value per acre. [3]

The kind of streets that are typically located in auto-centric areas are not only less financially productive, they also tend to be less adaptable, less flexible and thus more financially fragile. The financial struggles our cities face are directly related to the poor financial productivity of our auto-based development pattern.

Third, designing our streets as if they were roads is not safe. These environments combine fast speeds with randomness and complexity, a condition unsafe for drivers and particularly unsafe for anyone outside of a vehicle.

Stroads: The Futon of Transportation

A stroad is a hybrid of a street and a road. Much like a futon, it tries to do two things at once and is forced to compromise on each. A stroad tries to move cars kind of quickly along a corridor that also builds some wealth. The result is expensive infrastructure serving low-returning properties that fails to move traffic quickly while being particularly dangerous.

A stroad is the worst kind of transportation investment we can make, yet we build them all the time. ALL. THE. TIME. If you are driving between 25 and 50 miles per hour, you are probably on a stroad. They are everywhere.

That’s because of the way in which transportation professionals approach street construction. As they do with roads, they start the process by selecting a design speed. They then establish the volume of traffic they are designing to accommodate. Given the speed and volume, they then reference a road design manual to provide recommended dimensions for safe automobile travel. Finally, they calculate the cost of the project.

The order of these values—speed, volume, safety, then cost—works well for roads, but it is nearly the complete inverse of what is needed to build a productive and safe street. Successful streets emphasize safety first—and that’s safety for everyone, not just driver and their passengers—and then focus on cost, volume, and finally speed.

If we want a place to be successful, automobile speed can’t be the top priority of street designers. It needs to be their lowest priority.

#SlowTheCars

The most compelling thing we can do today to make our cities wealthier and more successful is to substantially slow automobile speeds on our streets.

We need to incrementally shift each of our stroads to become either a street or a road, distinguishing the parts of our existing transportation network over time to emphasize either a street function (wealth creation / complexity) or a road function (traffic movement / simplicity).

And while the fragile financial condition of our local governments is what compels us to make this change, it is clear that building lower cost, higher returning streets will also save lives and improve the quality of life for our citizens.

That is why #slowthecars is such a critical part of implementing a Strong Towns approach.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns [4], has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC [5].

This article originally appeared on Strong Towns [4] and is republished with permission.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Slow the Cars"

#1 Comment By Quimbob On January 19, 2018 @ 11:33 am

A news article about the neighborhood in one of the pictures.
[6]

#2 Comment By RVA On January 19, 2018 @ 11:47 am

Mr. Marohn: as a StrongTowns member, who saved the first post of yours I saw years ago, in absolute desperation about the madness of modern life in modern cities… I am so grateful the world is turning this way. There will be statues to you here and there as a visionary. Few will know your name. But at the base of the statues will be picnicking families and children riding past on bicycles, living in a much happier and more peaceful world. That’s the best legacy of all. Great work.

#3 Comment By Stavros On January 19, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

Left unmentioned is the critical role sidewalks play in creating both viable streets and functioning communities. In almost every American neighborhood and local retail area built up before 1950, sidewalks are ubiquitous and encourage not only walking, but strolling as people meet and greet their neighbors. Starting around 1955, sidewalks started disappearing, first in suburbs and then in the urban annexations of the larger towns as they grew outward. Part of this disappearance was caused by the misplaced emphasis on automobiles and wider streets/roads, but a large part was a simple unwillingness of both developers and towns to invest in street infrastructure in order to keep property taxes lower. The result is a network of roads in our suburbs that all force walkers to compete with cars. Not surprisingly, they give up walking. The loss in health, community vibrancy, and efficiency has been incalculable. It is no wonder we complain about alienation today when we no longer walk our streets with our neighbors on safe sidewalks.

#4 Comment By David Nash On January 19, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

A problem which comes to mind is that first, those who profit by the automobile culture would have to be denatured. The *joke* in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is that automobile companies bought up streetcars (safe, affordable –market driven — public transportation) in order to force everyone to buy a car. And those same people, or their biological, economic, and spiritual descendants, bribe (uh — make campaign donations to) thousands of politicians to maintain the status quo.

A second thought is that those enamored of unregulated free enterprise depend on atomized individuals (fungible assets) to work in the sausage grinder economy and consume sausages. They claim to be Conservatives, but they are not, for there is nothing they would conserve beyond their freedom to consume.

Third and last, for myself, you are preaching to the choir. How goes the preaching to all those chambers of commerce and city councils? Are they converted? Or do they snicker behind the “donations” they receive?

#5 Comment By Seth Largo On January 19, 2018 @ 9:59 pm

TAC’s hatred of the suburbs continues to amuse. The 1950s aren’t coming back, people. No one over the age of 30 wants to live in a tiny box in a crowded city. Every day, millions and millions of people decide that a commute is a fair price to pay for the luxury of a backyard, a big garage, and a detached abode.

#6 Comment By Anna On January 20, 2018 @ 12:03 pm

Excellent and completely persuasive article – but the problem is, what do you do about it? In my area all infrastructure decisions prioritize cars and their speed of passage, and there’s no sign of any change in that attitude.

E.g., In my area, purely residential streets are 30 or 40 feet wide, while our “sidewalks” are about 18 inches wide and molded in one piece with a 45 degree angled “curb” designed for cars to easily mount. A wheelchair or stroller cannot comfortably fit without danger of slipping off, nor can two people walk side-by-side; you can’t even walk holding your toddler by the hand. Plus, the curb style means cars can cross the sidewalk enter and exit parking lots at any point, not at a specific driveway.

Even in the intentionally touristy old downtown of my city, what aspire to be pedestrian “streets” in your terminology are actually high-speed arteries, since they funnel traffic through from one major artery to another, separated into two one-way channels, which makes things even worse.

Anyway, there’s no sign of any change; new construction is being done just the same way, and there is in fact stiff resistance to any measure like decreasing street width – among other things, apparently the fire departments are vehemently opposed.

#7 Comment By Furbo On January 22, 2018 @ 7:24 am

Yes, and again yes. I’ve lived in Europe most of my adult life. Even in the ‘burbs’ kids walk/bike to school and you can easily get anything you need within walking distance. Much easier on the young and the elderly to maintain quality of life. For most people a decent commute is a requirement for a good salary – but there’s still the neighborhood to return to. Dunno how we can recreate that at home.

#8 Comment By Brian M On January 22, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

“Third and last, for myself, you are preaching to the choir. How goes the preaching to all those chambers of commerce and city councils? Are they converted? Or do they snicker behind the “donations” they receive?”

From personal experience, I would argue it is less donations that are the issue but more sheer inertia. Our town is investigating a road diet for a main stroad, which is lined with severely fading 1960s-1980s strip commercial. The Council is on board, (there is an adopted master plan) but there is a vocal part of the community that are aghast at any proposal to slow automobile travel, cater to other forms of transportation, etc.

#9 Comment By JonF On January 22, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

Re: In almost every American neighborhood and local retail area built up before 1950, sidewalks are ubiquitous and encourage not only walking, but strolling as people meet and greet their neighbors. Starting around 1955, sidewalks started disappearing, first in suburbs and then in the urban annexations of the larger towns as they grew outward.

Where I grew up in Michigan, sidewalks were ubiquitous in new construction right up until the 70s– it was the post-70s subdivisions that started omitting them. Maybe this was different in other parts of the country? The two places lived in Florida (in St. Pete and Ft Lauderdale) had no sidewalks though I don’t know the age of the development.