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Roads, Streets, STROADS and Park Roads

Time is running out on our fundraising goal for holding a series of Curbside Chats across Pennsylvania. We would really love to make this trip happen and share the Strong Towns message across the entire state. If you are a PA-based organization, an individual or a local government that wants to make this happen in your community, help us reach our goal and we'll make it happen. We have only two weeks left - please do what you can.

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I just returned from a great week out west with my family. We had a stop in the Black Hills then moved on to Yellowstone and finally Grant Teton. It was a trip we had been waiting for our two daughters to get a little older to make. With the youngest heading to "Kinder-camp" this week and the oldest turning eight on Friday, the time had come. It was worth the wait.

Last year I did a TED speech about The Important Difference between a Road and a Street. The 15 minute talk has been watched nearly 14,000 times and I've received a lot of really positive feedback on it (thank you, everyone). While I feel that it, along with a lot of my other writing, has done an adequate job explaining the difference, I've known for a long time that there was something missing. I knew exactly what it was, but I couldn't explain it in the simple terms that I had done with roads and streets. I now think I can.

To review, a road is an efficient connection between two places. It is high speed and safe, which implies that it has limited access (intersections are inherently unsafe at high speeds) and highway geometries. It is essentially a replacement for the railroad which was, as its name suggests, a road on rails.

In contrast, streets create a platform for capturing value. A properly designed street will maximize the value of the adjacent development pattern in ratio to the infrastructure investment within the public realm. To do this, auto traffic will be slow and will (equally) share space with other modes of transport, including pedestrians, bikers and transit alternatives.

A STROAD is a street/road hybrid. And yes, I have often called it the "futon of transportation alternatives". Where a futon is an uncomfortable couch that also serves as an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD is an auto corridor that does not move cars efficiently while simultaneously providing little in the way of value capture. Anytime you are driving between 30 and 50 miles per hour, you are likely on a STROAD, which has become the default option for American traffic corridors. Cities wishing to be Strong Towns should have a active policy for reducing the amount of STROADS within the community.

How is this done? For most cities, the corridors that should be roads and the areas that should have a network of streets are fairly easy to identify. Roads begin on the periphery and provide a connection to adjacent communities. Streets are places where neighborhoods have the capacity to mature. The long term strategy for roads must be to improve the efficiency of the connection by first reducing access and ultimately providing expansion (transit, additional capacity, etc..). The long term strategy for streets is to develop the economic, regulatory and design framework to allow the adjacent areas to mature. (For an example of this framework, see our series From the Mayor's Office Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 or listen to the podcast of the fictional mayor's address.) 

Here's where I get to the part I've had a tough time explaining. In the typical American city, once the roads and streets have been identified, there is still a lot of STROAD left over. What happens to all of that? 

I've tried to explain that these are areas where, to improve the public's return-on-investment, we actually need to look at contracting the public's obligation. In other words, if these neighborhoods can't mature (increase in value) and they currently don't have enough value to justify the enormous public obligation for infrastructure maintenance, the STROADS need to be scaled back. Turning paved streets to gravel and narrowing lanes; that kind of thing.

I've called these "country roads" in the past to explain how they operate. People living on one of these would be out of town. They would thus need to drive along their country road to get to town where they could access destinations or get on a high speed road to another place. There would be no direct connection to the highway (road). This would not be a fast and efficient trip, but the place they are living is somewhat remote and that kind of comes with the turf (or it would if people actually paid for what they got and/or got what they were willing to pay for).

The description "country road" is not very satisfying, especially to someone applying it to a strictly suburban setting. What does this look like and, more importantly for some, what is the standard for building it?

Driving through some beautiful national parks last week it became clear to me. The description I've been looking for is, simply put, a park road. If you look at a park road, you will see something that, while engineered, is generally rather modest in its design and construction. They are built with the contour of the land, are designed for slow speed and low impact. While you would certainly have to deal with issues of stormwater and snow removal, my engineering instincts tell me that parks roads would generally be cheaper to construct and last just as long as the STROADS we build today. (If you want to argue with that, that's what the comment section is for.)

A park road in Yellowstone National Park, August 2012.

The great thing about using this label is that there are standards for park roads. The first publication by the U.S. Government on them came out in 1968 with an update in 1984 and another version released this past June. Here's some of the differences between park roads and roads, streets and STROADS:

1. Park roads were planned to reach the principal features of the park rather that be the most direct route between two points.

2. Park roads were designed to fit the topography of a park rather than to conform to the standards of gradient, curvature, and alignment used in statewide or nationwide applications. The roads lay gently on the land rather than cut through it.

3. Park roads were designed to be low speed roads so that visitors could see and enjoy the park. Their design as low speed roads allowed easier fit into the landscape and reduced the amount of construction scars.

More information is available on the National Park Service website.

A park road in Custer State Park, August 2012.

Now park roads through suburbia won't be lined with trees, wildlife and monuments, but there is no reason why this approach could not be immediately adapted to the construction, maintenance and retrofit of America's financially unproductive places. The only resistance I envision (because residents of suburbia would generally prefer more modestly-sized streets, although they may balk at the longer drive times) is from engineers. They will, without justification, put forth the notion that park roads would be dangerous.

So how dangerous are park roads? I don't know, but Yellowstone has over 3 million visitors per year and I would suspect that almost all arrive and travel by car. I found this article discussing bear attacks that had statistics suggesting fewer than three auto-related deaths per year.

In Yellowstone, of the 61 fatalities that occurred in the park from 1998 to 2006, 23 were due to either heart attacks or diabetes.

Twenty deaths within Yellowstone during those years were due to motor vehicle accidents, but the park-reported numbers do not include people who transported out of the park after an accident who later died of their injuries once off-site, Miller said.

Although the total number of fatalities that occur every year in the parks is generally low, Gaumer said, suicides are another common cause of deaths.

Despite the difficult terrain, steep slopes and random stops, very few people die on park roads. There is one reason for that: low speeds. 

A park road in Custer State Park, August 2012.STROADS are inherently unsafe as they combine moderate to high speed traffic with turning movements, intersections and sudden stops. They are also very expensive to build and maintain. In contrast, park roads are safe and, I firmly believe, much more affordable. To build a Strong Town, we need to adapt the park road approach to STROADS that cannot be turned into either roads or streets.


If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1), now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.

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Reader Comments (10)

Great post, but unfortunately I fear traffic engineers will push for "park roads" that look something like this: Lincoln Drive in Philadelphia, an overengineered park road which has, over the course of time, become exceedingly dangerous. Four lanes, 15mph curves, a posted speed limit of 25 mph, and everybody still does 40 on the thing.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

As someone who also just gotten back from a family trip to Yellowstone, I was amazed how much I was thinking about stroads. I was spending lots of my time on the roads, trying to enjoy the park's scenery usually a few degrees less than the speed limit, while most of the other motorists seem to be trying to pass me. My family was looking forward to a nice picnic lunch at Old Faithful after we enjoyed a morning Jr Park Ranger program, and the only picnic tables were placed at a location where we essentially had to drive to, losing the primo parking spot we got in the morning. After that lunch and eventually finding another parking spot, my family attempted to negotiate walking thru the parking lot to the Old Faithful visitor Center, and had a stressful time dodging impatient drivers because there was no clear direction for where pedestrians should go. Our tent on the campground was a hundred yards from the amphitheatre, but there was no trail to it as it seemed everyone was expected to drive the half mile loop to get there. I was disappointed by some of the 'planning' displayed at the park. The Grand Tetons was a but better of an experience.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergml4

The park-type of road, has potential. One issue that I've noted, with many park-like roads as of late, is that motorists have too many rights. Many park roads are narrow, to preserve the park atmosphere. Often they have limited signage, and even lack striping. This is great at a very low speed, as you can soak up the wonder and catch glimpses of the spaces between the trees and such. Lately, when I'm in the Columbia River Gorge, or in Yellowstone, it's mostly the din of unmuffled motorcycles, or speeding cars that is all that I notice now. At one time, many national parks had strict limits on automobiles, and provided different types of busses to shuttle people between attractions within the park. This was a valid method of providing safe conveyance, and allowing tourists time to experience the views. Ideally, motorized vehicles would be banned from parks entirely, with parking provided off-site for visitors.

I remember a visit to Sun River, Oregon. That community doubled down on bicycle infrastructure, way before it was in-vogue. Off-street paths for cyclists, and easier access for amenities as well as amble bicycle parking was provided. The entire experience was so much less frantic, as people would drive to Sun River, and then park their cars. Such a huge difference that noisy motorcycles and speeding traffic.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDennis

As some of the others have mentioned before, the danger of park roads is that they send mixed messages about their function. Being curvy and generally less engineered with the woods proximate to the roadway sends a message to go slow and carefully. On the other hand, because they're in a natural setting as opposed to an urban one, with no pedestrians around, and with no shortage of relatively straight and flat segments, that communicates a message that it's ok to go fast.

This is the same basic problem with all the pre-automobile era rural roads. They were never engineered much to begin with, aside from trying to avoid getting washed out or flooded. Once the automobile era came, they were paved and maybe had some guardrails put up, but tight curves are simply signed, there's usually a quick drop to the drainage ditches, sometimes there's poor views at hill crests, and lanes are narrow. With 55 mph speed limits these are some of the most dangerous roads out there on a per-user basis, because they appear to be built for high speed driving on the straight and wide open segments, but they really aren't meant for such use.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Where's the data showing park roads are unsafe? I drove all over Italy, Southern France and Ireland and this is much what you would find there. I'm not aware that their auto mortality rates are higher than ours, even when measured on a VMT basis (note that my proposal here would ultimately reduce VMT by strengthening the bonds of local economies).

Particularly in Italy, there was a tremendous difference between the Autostrada, the streets in the towns and the countryside roads. The driving was sometimes too fast and furious for my tastes, but I don't think that stats support an hypothesis that this is a dangerous approach.

Also, in Yellowstone and other state parks, speed limits were low. Anywhere from 25 to 45. Traffic generally flowed at those speeds. The slower speeds is a key to reducing fatalities.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

The key to those low speed limits is making sure the road is appropriate to them. Too many park roads are signed for some really low limit like 15 or 20 mph but they still have 12 foot lanes and a few extra feet of shoulder, mowed grass for several feet more, etc. That's the trap to watch out for. Roads like that would be the best candidates to revert to gravel in order to slow the speeds, since undoing the geometry would be a lot more difficult and expensive.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Its worth noting that most of those park roads are closed in late fall, before inclement weather moves in.

Not to say that your point has no validity; that roads should be designed to a certain scale and context. However, I'm confident that if I could get drivers to drive between 25 and 35 mph then I could make almost any road pretty safe. Thing is, those people are on vacation in a national park, not on their way to work or late picking up the kids from day care.

To make a valid and illuminating comparison between "park" roads and any other type, you'd have to look at things like average daily traffic, crash rates per mile and so on. But then somebody'd come by and accuse you of being a traffic engineer.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKS

Thank you for a great post. I agree with not only the difference in nomenclature, but also the issues and potential of value capture that you discuss here and in the TED Talk. Both strike me as something many of us do everyday though. I appreciate you describing and coining the term park road here, to describe a series of design details that respond to context and form to create places. As with trees, every tree has its place and we as landscape architects are taught and trained to place the right trees in the right places. As Urban Designers we do the same exercise as we design and build roads.

First understanding the context and use of the road, as you have been describing, will it just connect places or is it to connect, engage and draw value through the interactions it can provide. What is the environment rolling hills, flat ground. Are there assets, natural vistas and features we can take advantage of. What are the assets and issues. Then we look into the bag of design details we have. Which ones are appropriate. Roadside swales, ditches, tree lanes, no curb, curb and gutter, standing curb, roll over curbs: types of pavement, dirt, gravel, asphalt, concrete. There are a variety of details we can pick and choose from. Understanding these context, purpose and details we have, we can then begin to draw where that road needs to go. How far should the blocks be placed, what types of access management need to be applied and what do the intersections look like. What do we need for health, safety and welfare issues such as firetruck turning radi and necessity of sidewalks, bike lanes and other public needs.

We can also use basic urban design principles to encourage the driving behaviors we want. Such as terminating vistas, street furniture. Architecture that is brought to the edge of the right -of-way, and simple street design principles of smaller center line radi, standard travel lanes and the introduction of on street parking. All aspects of how design can inform, provide and create the behaviors we wish to see and encourage and help capture the values of our built environment. That are each used and placed when and where they are appropriate.

What I am seeing in practice is that we have gotten lazy. We are "value engineering" out good deign and appropriate urban principles in place for lower costs which in turn creates places that have less value, stagnant growth and little future potential.

Planning is a very conservative act, and when combined with good design can be a powerful and beautiful tool that engages our values and visions for a place, allowing the market to flourish and everyone a chance to have the quality of life they want and desire.

Thank you for the continued discussions and raising awareness about the economics, values and place making that proper design can have.

August 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I appreciate the definitions of Streets, Roads, and Stroads. Thanks.

Park roads (we call them a rural type section) could be used for stroads, or for neighborhoods that don't pan out as you suggest. The big physical difference between a rural type road and a curbed road is the space requirement. Curbed roads allow the drainage to be put underground, making a more compact section. Rural cross sections take up a lot more space to allow for a ditch (typically 15'-25' additional space from the edge of the shoulder). That's why you don't see them much in urban areas where space commands a premium price. Additionally, if the drainage is underground and the street is curbed, you recover a lot of surface utility where the drainage corridor is for landscaping, streetscaping, urban gardens, or just flat lawn space. You can't really do that in a ditch. But there is a substantial reduction in initial construction cost if you do not build curbs and an underground drainage system. Personally, in urban areas, I think you should stick with curbs.

Working with rural Counties, we have found once traffic gets over about 400 vehicles per day, the constant maintenance cost for regrading and adding rock breaks even with doing some sort of hard surface upgrade. So, traffic volume will dictate the level of decay allowed in the system. Plus, once you have made the initial investment in some pavement, are you really going to just let it go or are you going to perform maintenance activities to extend the life of the investment as far as possible? The neighborhood I grew up in was built in 1964. That pavement has had one asphalt overlay and is still in operation at almost 50 years of age. Even though we use 20 years as an estimated pavement design life, the reality is we get about 50-60 years (or more). I am working on a project where we are building over the top of the original highway built in the 1920's, using the original pavement as the base for the new paving. The highway received 3 overlays in 90+ years. Not bad. That's why I hesitate on just letting a street decay back to gravel and losing out on the investment already paid.

August 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Chuck, we seem to share many objectives in serving those who want better places than sprawl. CNU has a Transportation Summit workshop in Long Beach [LA] next month, 9/9 and 9/10 just prior to Pro Walk Pro Bike. Many of these thoroughfare design and context issues will be discussed in depth and further professional volunteer work will be set for the comming months. Documents will subsequently emerge from these initial sessions. I am co-hosting the Work Group studying Regional Policy & Alternatives to Funcitonal Classification. We are introducing and promoting Area Types for Compact Urban vs. Suburban context, within which arterial, collector and local streets can be dramatically respecified to encourage all modes and low speeds. Your voice and some of these astitute authors of comments to your post are needed at Long Beach. See CNU.ORG Events for more information. Regards, Rick Hall

August 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick Hall
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