Streets, roads and the destruction of small town America

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns recently wrote an excellent post explaining how many state departments of transportation  fail to understand how different kinds of car-networks function. He offers this review:

Road: A high speed connection between two places.

Street: A platform for creating and capturing value within a place.

In other words, roads are things like highways, while streets are what we have inside cities. A stroad is a Frankenstein monster of the two. Simple.

Marohn goes on to argue that state DOTs build roads that function like highways, but which cut through towns where there should be streets. The result is cars going too fast, a lack of street parking, and a hostile environment for people. These stroads also encourage businesses like McDonalds to cluster along them, essentially acting like parasites in places of heavy government investment.

The post is long and I’m boiling down a lot of great content here, but the point is that all over the U.S. we have DOTs pouring money into roads that actually hurt towns. It’d be better, Marohn seems to be saying, to build cheaper streets, which would  capture more value — in the form of safety, business, etc. — for the towns they serve. For their part, roads should be used to link communities and should have limited accesses, i.e. on/off ramps, which are costly and basically government handouts to business.

In his post, Marohn suggests changing the form of roads so they become streets when entering towns:

When we get to the street section, we need to dramatically reduce speeds by designing the highway to function like a street. We need on street parking, narrow lanes and slow, slow, SLOW speeds. Like 15 mph throughout — slow enough where bikes safely drive in the traffic stream and pedestrians can safely cross anywhere (not just at a crosswalk during a red light) at will.

So to review, the cheaper, safer option also benefits local communities and people. Why are we not already doing this?

I don’t have the answer to that question, but I did recently experience a stroad-ish main street in a small town:

Downtown Coalville, in Summit County, Utah.

Downtown Coalville, in Summit County, Utah.

This street happens to have parking, which makes it different from the topic of Marohn’s post, but it’s still a highway-like stroad running down the middle of a small town.

This was a crushingly oppressive place. Coalville has some old buildings and has cool spots, but actually moving through the built environment was unpleasant and difficult. I walked between several businesses and government buildings while I was there, and the entire time I had to fight the temptation to get back in my car and drive from block to block.

That is not the kind of environment we need in our towns, or in our larger cities where this sort of thing also happens (I’m thinking of State Street in both Salt Lake City and Orem.) It’s costly, wasteful, dangerous, and altogether pointless.

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