Paving Our Streets
November 11, 2013

One of the things I like to do on my blog is to point out a modern norn that does not make much sense to me, yet we grew up with it, and take it for granted, that we rarely question it. In this blog post, I am focusing on paving our streets. Often we spend a lot of money paving and maintaining our streets, just to accomidate cars. I am not advocating that we should not pave our streets, I am just questioning why.

I spend a lot of time on the Strong Towns Network (now replaced by Slack). The message is that the suburbia, in general, is an extremely unproductive place. It costs more to maintain the suburban pattern, than the tax revenue such a pattern generates. To compensate for this, suburban municipalities usually rely on more growth to pay their bills, which in the long run, does not work out.

From a financial perspective, suburbia is among the worst offenders for depending on subsidies, as it generates very little tax revenue (in this diagram of tax revenue per acre from the Sonoran Institute);

Yet, despite this very little revenue, we expect more than ever. When a new subdivision is being built, one of the first things a developer or city does is pave the streets and roads;

They pave streets where the traffic is nearly exclusively automobile-oriented. To me, this seems moronic.

Cars are heavy duty machines. They are feats of engineering. They have advanced suspension systems, they have 100+ horse power engines for driving over virtually any terrain, you are seated in relatively comfortable seats, and you have a huge bulk of metal and glass dividing you from the outside world;

An automobile offers the best protection from the elements. Far more than a bicycle or a good pair of running shoes.

So, what is wrong with this image?

The cars - that are protecting their drivers in their cozy, comfortable confines - are given this huge, wide, perfectly paved surface, while the pedestrians - wearing nothing more than a pair of shoes - are forced to walk on an awkward, uneven patch of grass.

This is where the moronic part kicks in. The form of transportation that needs to be protected the least, is given nearly all of our resources to give it the most perfect surface possible to travel on - some municipalities even going down to the fine details of requiring a certain thickness and composition of the pavement - while the user that needs it the most, the pedestrians wearing a simple pair of shoes, is given a patch of uneven, overgrown grass.

If we are going to pave a road or a street, then logically, we should pave the part where people walk first, because that is where we would get the most benefit from doing so. A century ago, this was common sense. Save money by simply paving where the people walk, and let the horses and automobiles deal with dirt;

We could even pave the crosswalks, so we do not have to walk through dirt and mud to simply cross the street;

And by doing so, we were able to keep road maintance costs within our means. But now, everyone feels like it is their right to have an ultra-wide, perfectly smooth pavement leading up to every suburban home;

Are our cities spoiling us with too much infrastructure? Compare the above photo to;

All of those places look just as, if not more, productive than modern suburbia, yet they had unpaved streets.

Seattle recently stated that it would cost $4.5 billion to add sidewalks to all of their streets. I bet they paved the middle of their streets, though (despite simply logic telling me it would have cost far more to pave 25 feet than two 6 foot wide sidewalks.)

I think a large part of the problem is that we have grown up being spoilt with public infrastructure, that we see a paved street as a one of the very fundamental things that a city is required to provide, so this looks completely normal to us;

Nowadays, the lack of a paved street makes a place look either very poor, or rural, even if it is not;

It seems like it is a sign of wealth to have wide, perfectly paved, surfaces for our automobiles to travel on, even if it means we have to walk through dirt and grass;

Personally, I would prefer for my car to get dirty than my pants.



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Thomas Child • 12.09.2013 • 11:16 AM (MST)
I agree with the idea that pedestrians should come first, or at least receive consideration. However, I'm not sure I agree that no pavement = savings. Dirt roads need maintenance more frequently than paved roads. At least this is true in places with lots of rain, freezing temps, etc. like here in New England. As a pedestrian I definitely do not like the idea of getting splashed from a mud puddle. A regular puddle is bad enough, but that will eventually dry. Tom
guest • 11.24.2013 • 20:50 PM (MST)
Imagine how much slower, thus SAFER car traffic would be! Nobody would be speeding through potholed muddy town streets at 50 mph!