Most small towns have a very peculiar approach to their local streets. In the highway era, they have re-engineered the historic street sections to better accommodate the automobile. This has had dramatic implications, not just on the character of those areas, but on the finances of the communities they serve.

The following two pictures are of streets in the same small town. For discussion, we'll call them "Simple" and "Complex".

Simple Street

Complex Street

Both of these streets go through residential neighborhoods, accommodate cars and provide parking. That is where the similarities end. 

Notice how the simple street section is designed for one purpose: to move automobiles. Not only that, the design is to move them at high speed. At neighborhood speeds, the street would provide a full four lanes of traffic along with two parking lanes. At highway speeds, there are two generously-sized lanes added to the parking. The bottom of the picture even shows the curve radius to the adjoining street, which is broad, allowing cars to take the corner without having to slow down too much.

The complex street is different. It is quite a bit narrower, although it still accommodates two lanes of traffic at neighborhood speeds. There is parking along each side. There are also pedestrian areas - a sidewalk - protected not just by parked cars, but by vegetation. This street serves a number of purposes in addition to moving automobiles.

While we could argue over aesthetics, stormwater runoff, vegetation, walkability and many, many other issues that can be wrapped into this comparison, there are two critical factors that need to be understood about these streets. 

  1. The simple street costs more to build and maintain than the complex street.
  2. Despite costing more, the simple street depresses property value. The complex street is cheaper and helps appreciate the total value of the neighborhood. 

Why do small-town engineers insist on retrofitting neighborhoods with highway-sized streets that are expensive to build and maintain and give a terrible return on the investment?

The answer to that in a future blog entry.