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, and we must empower our transportation professionals 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.
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.
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.
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, 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 Planetizen. In October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.