Jamie Littlefield is a Strong Towns member and writer who is currently traveling the world. Today she shares about her home state of Utah, and its overly-wide roads.
Utah’s wide, grid-based system of roads is a blessing and a curse.
Originally designed to be large enough to turn around a team of oxen, these streets make many modern pedestrians feel like they’re running across a highway just to get to the other side. These wide streets cost a lot to maintain, encourage drivers to put the pedal to the metal (even in residential neighborhoods), and make Utah’s cities feel less welcoming to pedestrians. Families regularly hop in their cars for errands a few blocks away to avoid dealing with dangerous crossings.
The width of these stroads is daunting. But, they also offer potential for the inventive and the daring. Here are four ways Utahans are seeking solutions to the problem:
1. Radical Road Diets
It takes guts to tell retailers you’re putting the street in front of their establishments on a road diet that reduces that number of on-street parking spaces and decreases the number of travel lanes from five to three. But, that’s exactly what planners did for 300 South street in Salt Lake City in 2014.
This road diet used the extra space for a protected bike lane. It also added public art, planters, improved crosswalks, and new medians.
The result? A street that still works for cars but is also inviting for people traveling by foot or by bike. A year later, bicycle use in the corridor is up 30%. Sales are also up along the street, with 79% of businesses reporting that business is “good” and 16% reporting that business is “up” or “setting records.” Similar road diets have been completed or are in progress in other Utah cities, including Ogden and Provo.
Figuring out what to do with wide roads requires vision and the gumption to face skeptical business owners. But, these widths are an ideal canvas for adding protected bicycle lanes, installing BRT systems with walk-on median stations, and many other options that make the streets feel less like freeways and more like places for people.
2. Public Reclamation
Utah’s wide roads offer a huge amount of under-used space, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by local event organizers. Closing off a street temporarily for a farmers market, marathon or other event isn’t particularly challenging - especially when there are many possibilities for traffic detours.
One beloved event is Provo’s summertime Rooftop Concert series. These weekend concerts used to be held on a downtown rooftop until the crowds became too large. Now the city works with the concert organizers to make several blocks of Center Street a pedestrian-only zone for these free events. (The local Provo Bicycle Collective offers complimentary valet bike parking). The crowds have exceeded all expectations - thousands of families, college students, neighbors, and out-of-town guests pack the streets while local restaurants gain long lines and new fans.
Events like this send a clear message: Downtown is a destination, not somewhere to simply drive through.
3. Extraordinary Medians
Most cities ask very little of their medians: some paint on the road, a concrete barrier, perhaps some grass or a tree. But the Kentlands Initiative is taking Salt Lake City medians to another level as a part of the Granary Row project.
Last summer, Granary Row organizers set up reclaimed shipping containers, platforms, and public spaces as a temporary street median. Traffic still flowed. But, in the middle of this wide road, neighbors went shopping, danced, and spent time socializing in a mid-street beer garden.
James Alfandre, the Executive Director of Kentlands Initiative explains it this way: “Median development takes an underutilized wide street and… makes it a place for everyone: for cars, people, bikes, shops, dancing, and gathering space.”
While the Granary Row medians were temporary, they demonstrated how successfully Utah’s wide streets could be turned into more permanent destinations.
4. Pedestrian Revolts
Provo artist Susan Krueger-Barber has made it clear that those little orange flags placed at either end of pedestrian crossings simply aren’t cutting it.
After a pedestrian was killed trying to cross one of Provo’s widest streets, some local newspapers and commenters focused on the victim’s “dark clothes.” Susan responded to this by sewing a massive, orange pedestrian crossing flag the size of a car and capturing drivers’ reactions as she attempted to cross the street. Surprisingly, many cars still whizzed by on the wide roads.
“Vehicles still swerved around me rather than stopping,” she said. “Being as big and obvious as a car does not change my status in the pecking order. Originally, I also considered ways to slow and control traffic. I researched murals, bulb-outs, and new solutions. I wanted to do something memorable to slow traffic, but discovered after my experiment that my visibility had little effect. Street design was the key element to traffic safety.”
Susan’s video made it easy for neighbors to relate. “Everyone gets it. Even strangers, as we filmed, people who crossed the street, immediately understood. They thanked me and laughed,” Susan said. “Anyone who regularly crosses the street flag intersections recognizes the futility of the orange flags. Dangerous intersections need to be physically changed to narrow the distance the pedestrians must walk, narrow the width of the lanes to slow down the cars, and make drivers become more alert.”
Susan’s neighborhood later came together to hold a “Complete the Street” event, transforming several blocks with chalk painted road markings, balloon bulb-outs, and a makeshift stage. The city is working with the citizen group and is now planning permanent infrastructure improvements to remodel a wide residential street into a “neighborhood greenway.”
In all of these examples, neighbors and city officials were willing to ask two difficult questions: Are our streets really serving the people that use them? And, when they’re not, what can we do about it?
Seeking answers to those questions can mean the difference between a lonely stroad and a welcoming street designed to connect people with the places the live.
(All photos taken by the author unless otherwise noted)
About the Author
Jamie Littlefield is the author of an upcoming book about placemaking - the wild and wonderful ways people are re-creating their cities. A former college English instructor, she is now traveling the world in search of inspiring stories from innovators working to create a sense of place and connection with the cities they call home. Follow her on Twitter: @writingjamie.