One Size Does Not Fit All
September 13, 2019

We know there is a fundamental difference between a street, which is the living room of a community;

..and a road, which is a tool for getting from A to B;

Streets and roads should be treated differently, which is in contrast with how we build our places in the modern world by treating them the same. Treating streets and roads at the same leads to the "stroad" - a street/road hybrid that is unsafe, miserable for people, bad at moving vehicles, and expensive to maintain.

The main street of Fort Smith, Arkansas tries to be both a highway and an urban street. It fails at both.

By treating streets and roads as the same, we apply the same one size fits all solutions that otherwise would make no sense. We end up building pimped out roundabouts in the middle of nowhere. For example, I saw the following curiosity this weekend while traveling through the Pocono Mountains;

A highway in rural Pennsylvania, with crosswalks.

What person would be waiting here to cross?

What is the purpose of putting a crosswalk and countdown timer in the middle of a rural area where nobody would be seen walking? If it is to accommodate people hiking through the mountains, then a) the worst place for hikers to cross would be at an intersection where there are vehicles coming from multiple directions, and b) the sidewalk leads to a metal railing next to a rock-face - a dead-end. How times have those crossing buttons ever been pushed?

It happens the other way too. When we design our streets to highway standards, people die. It is heartbreaking when residents want a street changed, but the response from city officials is that they cannot do anything because the street is following the guidelines published by an organization such as AASHTO or NACTO. I have heard that it is a liability issue - cities know there will be deaths and injuries, and want to cower behind the argument that they were following the "standard" to the word, so it is not their fault. I wished we lived in a world where being a lemming (mindlessly following what others do) does not excuse you from legal liability.

Engineers should not design streets. Engineers should design roads - connectors that carry cars, trucks, and trains at high speeds. The best streets are not laid out by engineers, but by the community, land developers, or organically by many generations of property owners sharing stewardship. These people have an interest in making the streets safe and inviting. Engineers have a role in making sure the storm water drains, the toilets flush, and the utilities work, but engineers should not design streets. Streets should have a ton of diversity. Towns should look different. We should be excited to explore.

A residential street in Tokyo.

A residential street in Salzburg, Austria.

A residential street in Philadelphia.

A mixed-use street in Vail, Colorado.

A residential street in the suburbs of Adelaide, Australia.

A commercial street in the suburbs of Adelaide, Australia.

When engineers design streets, they a) tend to be very car centric, even in urban areas, and b) they tend to look the same - a monotonous stroad - regardless of whether they are in Australia, Mexico, the United States, Switzerland, or any other country.

A commercial stroad in Adelaide, Australia.

One size does not fit all. Streets and roads have different purposes. They should not look the same. They should not function the same. They are different, with a different set of priorities, and we should build them differently.