Common Mistakes a Small Town Makes

(I spent last evening running back and forth to the police office during the Pequot Lakes Council meeting to catch the extra innings of the Twins game on TV. I can not help but add a little note at the beginning of this entry - GO TWINS! Let's show them Yankees what a team with The MVP on it can do in the postseason. Don't tear down that right field baggy just yet.)

The current development model used by almost all of Small Town America is a variation on the standard suburban theme. It is bankrupting our small towns, destroying their character and social fabric in the process. One of the challenges we face in promoting Strong Towns is helping community leaders see beyond the accepted norm to a new reality.

In this series we are going to review the most common practices small towns engage in that are considered "good business" but, in the end, undermine the values of their community.

Common Mistake #1: Blurring the line between roads and streets.

Roads should be high-capacity and designed exclusively for moving automobiles. They should be simple in design so as to facilitate high traffic speeds and volumes. A properly designed road will have highway geometries, limited intersections, wide lanes and long sight distances.

In contrast, streets must be more complex. They must have urban geometries including narrower lane widths to slow traffic, on-street parking to protect pedestrian areas, sidewalks and aesthetic vegetation. Streets must be designed to enhance the public realm and thus add value to the neighborhoods they traverse.

Roads that include street elements add complexity to high-speed traffic areas and thus are very dangerous. In my engineer days my peers would say that it is not "speed that kills, but the difference in speed." Adding intersections, accesses, pedestrian crossings, aesthetic vegetation, parked cars, etc... all create objects in or near the driving lane that exist at speeds and directions of travel different from the traffic. Roads dedicated to moving traffic quickly from one destination to the next are made dangerous and ineffective by adding complexity.

On the other hand, streets that are designed as roads inject high-speed traffic into a complex, urban environment. This is very dangerous as well, but also destructive to neighborhood connectivity, economic vitality and property values. When we remove parking, add and widen lanes, channel traffic into "collectors" and "arterials", focus on "Level of Service" and other highway-terms, we are simplifying streets that, by their nature, should be complex. By design, this speeds up traffic, but in a complex urban environment that has too many obstacles for safe high-speed travel.

When run through neighborhoods, the highway road design has a negative impact on property values - who wants to live on the high-speed street? And by elevating auto trips over all other forms of travel, the economic vitality of the community and the social vitality of neighborhoods is compromised.

To top it all off, it is prohibitively expensive to build high-capacity roads where there should be complex streets. The converse is true as well: a highway is simple and affordable until complexity is added to it.

Roads should be reserved exclusively for travel between towns. Streets must be used exclusively within towns. Having a clear distinction between a town's roads and its streets is critical to being a Strong Town.


In upcoming editions of this series, we will look at the following Common Mistakes a Small Town Makes:

2. Engaging in the Small Town Ponzi Scheme. 

3. Accepting the developer's Poison Gift.

4. Accepting the government-subsidized Poison Gift.

5. Zoning for separation of uses.

6. Actively working towards de-densification of the community.

7. Coding for suburban-style architecture.