We desperately need a more sophisticated understanding of the difference between a road and a street. Our DOTs are damaging our cities, wasting money they don't have pursuing antiquated goals using yesterday's procedures. We can do more with less if we adopt a strong towns approach.

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Last Friday I was a guest on Minnesota Public Radio talking about the future of small towns in Minnesota. In the course of the conversation, I dropped a brief explanation on the important difference between a road and a street and then made the following statement:

Our DOT has done a lot of damage to small towns and we need a different DOT approach.

Wow. This weekend I learned, via my inbox, that a lot of people listen to Minnesota Public Radio.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, and departments of transportation across the country, have done a ton of damage to cities of all sizes because of their failure to grasp the important difference between a road and a steet. For the sake of review:

Road: A high speed connection between two places.

Street: A platform for creating and capturing value within a place.

A properly designed road for automobiles is a replacement of a railroad which, by definition, is a road on rails. There was no strip development along railroad lines. No frontage railroads. No signalized intersections or off ramps where the quiki marts, fast food joints and big boxes were located. The safe, high speed travel of the railroad was made possible by the fact that the only stops or intersecting traffic was at very specific, discrete and infrequent places.

Within those places, prior to the automobile, we had streets on rails, only they were not called railstreets but streetcars. Even though the essential technology was the same, the streetcar was very different from the railroad in that it traveled slow and stopped frequently. This is how it performed its function as a platform for creating and capturing value.

So for those of you that yearn for trains and streetcars and loath the automobile, understand that the automobile technology is not the problem. The problem is how we've deployed the automobile, how we've made our roads into streets and our streets into roads. Today we get few places quickly and have a landscape that is financially unproductive. It is the worst of both worlds, akin to what 1870's America would have been like if the trains between cities traveled at just 30 mph and made frequent stops for "commuters" while the streetcars in town traveled 30 mph and were too fast to hop on and off. It is a ridiculous system when you look at it with a critical eye.

One of the people who emailed me after the MPR show was a nice woman from the small town (11,000+) of St. Peter, MN. I've not asked her permission to share this excerpt so I am omitting all of the names. 

I listened with interest to your comments on MPR discussion on small towns this morning, especially regarding the impact of DOT designs for highways through small towns.
St Peter is my hometown, though I lived elsewhere 25 years.  For the past six years I have lived in one of St. Peter's historical buildings, the Nicollet Hotel, that sits directly on MN Ave.  This building was built for horse and buggy traffic, not 25,000 vehicles including heavy semi trucks roaring by every day.
Recently I wrote MNDOT to express concern, ask questions about traffic through downtown St. Peter. Your comments this morning on MPR added context to my concerns, and to my relief, some corroboration. 
Please see how [Mn/DOT Official] responds to my concerns in emails attached, how she suggests that my concerns about trucks and cars speeding through St. Peter are not her purview and but those of local police.
St. Peter may present an interesting case for analysis by someone concerned.  I am neither knowledgeable about these things nor an activist as I have other projects.  I wish I had time to record the traffic outside my window as evidence.  I feel it is foreboding and can only testify to that.

While I've been feeling lately like we need to have a conversation about the proposed Southwest Light Rail Corridor in Minneapolis and its suburbs (one of the clearest misunderstandings of roads/streets and a financial tragedy in the making), St. Peter presents a nice, simple case study in how we start to repair the damage our DOT's have wrought.

Here is the Google Earth Image of St. Peter. Minnesota Avenue that runs north/south is also Highway 169.

Image from Google EarthIf we look closely at Highway 169 on the north side of town, the problem becomes evident (it exists on the south side of town as well but this post can only be so long). I've labeled here the part of this section that should be road, the part that should be street and where the transition between the two should take place. (Note: I'm comfortable shifting this one way or the other as long as the transition between the two is clear -- the location of the transition is not an exact science).

Image from Google EarthHere's what the "road" portion looks like just north of the transition. It is really well designed to handle high speed traffic except for one thing: the intersection. To be a road -- a substitute for a railroad -- there should not be an intersection here. I realize the Holiday gas station, the McDonalds and the Dollar General store are not going to like that, but understand a few things about those businesses.

Image from Google Earth

This is going to sound harsh, but those businesses that line up along the highway on the edge of town are parasites off the public's investment in the transportation system. They could easily be located within the street network further south, but the highway and the access that has been provided on the public's dime provides them an opportunity for a more competitively beneficial location, perhaps cheaper land and certainly greater visibility.

Benefit/cost analyses routinely equate decreases in travel time and added safety with financial benefit. While I think those studies are bogus -- especially as they apply to local governments -- it is very telling that this same analysis is never applied to intersections. If it were, the cost of these intersections in reduced highway travel time and the dramatic increase in highway accidents would be accounted for.

I have nothing against Holiday, McDonalds or Dollar General, but they -- and the others who use this access -- should be paying the public for the decrease in capacity and the decrease and safety caused by that access along what would otherwise be a very safe, high speed roadway. The fact that they are not is what makes them a parasite (I don't use that word flippantly). If the public was not willing or capable of making this highway and access investment, they would not exist. 

Parasite: an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host's expense.

Let's go further down the road and examine the street section. Here is what that looks like.

When I said that our DOT -- and others across the country -- have damaged small towns, here is what I mean. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions. If you want to understand why local governments across the country are in such dire financial straits, you need to grasp what is going on along streets like this.

Remember that a street is a platform for creating and capturing value. This street is the municipal corporation of St. Peter's biggest revenue generating asset. Yet the very design of this highway does nothing but destroy value.

First, there is no on street parking. That is not a subtle shortcoming. Without parking along this corridor, every property along here has to devote what would otherwise be productive, revenue-producing space to unproductive car storage. In a small town, that is an enormous financial burden with no comparable payback.

Second, the lack of parking makes this a hostile environment for people. (Contrary to what they seem to teach in retail school, cars don't make purchases. People do.) While this may meet the technical requirement of a "complete street" in that it has sidewalks on the side, it is far from a complete neighborhood. This SID.tv video shows the hostile nature of this environment for the person outside of their car.

Third, you've got high speeds through here. While it might be marked at 30 mph, these are highway-scaled lanes. As the emailer noted, there are problems with speeding cars (and why wouldn't there be -- the street is designed with highway geometries) but the DOT considers that a local enforcement problem, not a design problem. They are wrong, and it is institutionalized malpractice to not understand that.

When there is no functional difference for the driver in the design of the roadway, there is no cue -- other than a sign (more on that) and a cop car -- to signal them to behave differently. 

So with high speeds we get large signs. A large sign is the cost of doing business for the McDonalds and Holiday franchises. The $50,000+ that leaves the city to purchase a sign is prohibitive to that local business. It is a very expensive ante that they have to pay to be competitive, money that would be better spent improving the building itself, paying employees or investing in any number of things where those precious and limited dollars would stay in the community. Steve Mouzon writes eloquently on how the way we approach highway design tilts the competitive marketplace to the advantage of the nationwide chain at the expense of the local business owner in his book, the Original Green.

The high speeds also advantage building styles that orient around the automobile and towards the highway. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To be competitive as a business, you need a big parking lot out front. Because there is a big parking lot out front, you don't walk to the business but drive instead. Almost all local trips then become auto trips and now we need to have the capacity for everyone who used to walk and bike to drive around for the same things. If you have a building that clings to the old, pedestrian-oriented style, it will be devalued because it will not be as competitive. Subsequently, the new lots that are developed or redeveloped have a lower per square foot value for the property and the buildings themselves tend to not appreciate or hold their value over time.

So Highway 169 may be looked at by the diminishing number of local businesses -- those that have managed to adapt to the highway centric design -- as their critical lifeline, but it is destroying the city. They need the traffic, yes, but what the DOT does with it when it reaches town has made the city functionally insolvent.

Let's take a quick look at the transition. Since we go from STROAD environment to STROAD environment there is no real transition today, but there are many ways a transition from road to street and back again could be done. This SID.tv video from Vancouver, Washington, provides one example. 

I'll turn to Europe, where they generally have a better understanding or roads and streets, for additional inspiration. I've driven throughout Italy, France and Ireland (four separate trips). When one would approach a town like St. Peter on a highway, there would be some transition that would take you from highway speeds to local speeds. Sometimes it was a roundabout (not the over-engineered ones we do here in the U.S. but one that was designed to intentionally slow the cars). Sometimes they would just bring the curbs in to provide a subtle constrained feeling. None of these techniques are part of the standard DOT toolbox, but they critically need to be.

So we see and understand what is wrong. What do we do to fix it?

Close the accesses along the road section. Much like the streetcar system fed into the center of town where the primary railroad stop was, the local street network needs to feed into town where the primary road into and out of town can be accessed. DOTs have this authority today but are loath to exercise it, largely because locals -- caught in their own growth ponzi scheme -- value the short term financial benefit for the city's budget over the long term solvency of the city. Highway property owners and large corporations that currently enjoy the benefits of having the public pay for their premium access would also vigorously oppose this. 

DOT's can make their task easier with three approaches. First, accesses along highways are a huge safety issue. If that highway/street interface happened at slow speeds within a city instead of at highway speeds outside of town, we'd reduce accidents and fatalities dramatically. I'll use the malpractice word again because what we do today is just morally wrong.

Second, the DOT is going broke and needs to find a way to reduce costs. Maintaining all of these accesses is incredibly expensive. The general taxpayer, as well as the traveler, would be better served allocating that money to the highway itself rather than as a business subsidy.

Third, while I'm not a proponent of more revenue for transportation until we have a new vision for what we're doing, I've been a proponent of a different revenue approach than the gas tax. I've proposed two things: an access tax, which I envision as a fee for property owners who wish to have direct access to the highway where it is at its road function, and direct assessment for improvements. If it replaced the gas tax, an access tax is actually a compensation to the driver who, because of the access, is having their travel time increased and their safety decreased. Direct assessment are, again, simply a moral thing for society to do. (If taxpayers build a highway and make a future Wal-mart property worth $5,000,000 more, why should that windfall go to Wal-mart or some property owner and not the taxpayer who funded the project?)

When we get to the street section, we need to dramatically reduce speeds by designing the highway to function like a street. We need on street parking, narrow lanes and slow, slow, SLOW speeds. Like 15 mph throughout -- slow enough where bikes safely drive in the traffic stream and pedestrians can safely cross anywhere (not just at a crosswalk during a red light) at will.

Oh but the humanity if we slow down the cars!

I'll do this again for the engineers out there, those DOT officials that read Strong Towns and for my friends in Kansas City. At the most, St. Peter is going to have 1.4 miles of Highway 169 function as a street. Overlooking the increased speeds that will be attained outside of town by improving the road function of the highway, that 1.4 miles would take 2.8 minutes to travel at 30 mph. If we dropped that design speed to 15 mph, that's 5.6 minutes to navigate through town, an additional 2 minutes and 48 seconds.

Pause here. A 15 mph street is going to be much cheaper for the DOT to build and maintain than the current 30 mph roadway. It is going to be much safer. It is also going to improve the property values within the city (not to mention the quality of life) significantly. But you still have that pesky 2.8 extra minutes of travel time and traffic engineers are singly obsessed with travel time.

At 30 mph, there are four signals needed in St. Peter. At 15 mph, those could all go away and be replaced with either shared space intersections or some type of continuous flow traffic circle. A driver hits two of those four signals and, even though they can travel 30 mph when the light turns green, they travel 0 mph when it is red.

Within a city, continuous flow at low speed will get you there safer, cheaper and quicker than stop and go at signals with high top speeds.

We desperately need a more sophisticated understanding of the difference between a road and a street. Our DOTs are damaging our cities, wasting money they don't have pursuing antiquated goals using yesterday's procedures. We can do more with less if we adopt a strong towns approach.


We've started a contest over at the Strong Towns Network for those who like to write and have some thoughts to share. Even if that is not you, come and hang out with us there. There is a good conversation going on and we'd all benefit from your thoughts. 

And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.