Engineers have an obsession with making neighborhood streets wider, flatter and straighter. It is not that they love such streets - they are human too (you'll have to trust me on that) and will often have the same reaction (yuck) that the rest of us have to these misapplied streets. Actually, it is funny how many engineers I have seen protest engineering projects that widen, flatten and straighten the street in front of their own home.

When engineers recommend wider, flatter and straighter streets, what they are doing is misapplying ROAD standards to STREETS. Roads are designed to move autos at high speeds from location to location. There are few intersections (aka: crash inducement sites) and so wider lanes, excess shoulder recovery area and turn lanes all make sense. 

Streets are more complex. With many intersections, we need traffic to drive slower. Slower traffic means narrower lanes and no need for wide, sweeping highway geometries.

We started this week talking about financial imbalances with a local street project. One of the recommendations we made had to do with the way in which we design streets. From our Monday posting:

Evaluate the City’s road standards to see if they can be transformed into sections that are more affordable to construct and maintain. Most small towns have road standards that are derivations of state-aid highway standards. Not only are these standards a poor fit for the context of the neighborhood, they place extra financial burden than what is warranted by the traffic volumes. 

The following are two different road sections that run through single-family residential neighborhoods. The first is in the City of Walker, MN, but could be in just about any town that has given their neighborhood design over to their engineer (aka: nearly every town in the country). The second photo we took on our recent trip to Celebration, Florida.

A neighborhood road in Walker, MN

A neighborhood street in Celebration, Florida.

I love this street in Celebration, which is actually typical of most of the streets there. Most other engineers would go crazy with this street. Not only do you have on-street parking, but the parking creates a situation where two cars actually could not meet traveling in opposite directions. The remaining street width is not wide enough.

Ostensibly, if the engineer is to be believed, cars will drive down the street and, due to this unsafe design, crash head first into each other. Of course, when we see this street we know this will not happen. When two cars meet (a rare occurrence), they simply slow down, pull over a little and let each other pass. There might even be (brace yourself) eye contact between the two drivers.

Let me add to the obvious here. The Celebration street is beautiful. Give any of us the choice between living on one of these two streets, we all choose the narrow street. We'll sacrifice the three seconds we save driving to the store to live someplace that is beautiful.

One final obvious point: the Celebration street costs less.

Demand that your engineer build a safe street that will not only look beautiful and enhance the neighborhood but actually cost you less money. Demand a Strong Town.


If you want a good book that includes a discussion on the value of eye-contact between drivers, read Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).

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