4 Reasons We Must Build Our Streets for People (Not Just Cars)

About a month ago, my local news station here in St. Louis ran a remarkable piece of journalism — one that I never thought I’d see a traditional media outlet be brave enough to tackle. They named the stroad (a term that Strong Towns coined way back in 2013) for exactly what it is: one of the worst public safety mistakes our cities can make. They made it clear that bad road design like this was responsible for the preventable deaths of 78 people in our town over the course of the last decade. And they put that message right in middle of the 5 o’clock news.

All too often, this is the lens through which our leaders see their city. (Source: Rian Castillo)

All too often, this is the lens through which our leaders see their city. (Source: Rian Castillo)

I was thrilled. Until I got to the segment where they interviewed our Streets Department director, Jamie Wilson.

It’s been about a month since the segment ran, and since then, I’ve been wrestling with how to respond. As someone who’s invested in the future of my community, I know that reactionary, heat-of-the-moment media is a huge part of how the road networks in places like St. Louis turned into the mess that they are in today. Decades of breathless reporting on fatal car crashes are some of the reason why high speed roads designed with the principles of forgiving highway design in mind have crept further and further into our city centers, without much thought for the pedestrian protections that we lost in the process (and the common sense, #slowthecars approach that would have served us far better.) Anger turns complex problems into binaries: Cars versus pedestrians. One limited, flawed solution versus another. With me or against me.

I’ll admit I was angry when I first heard our streets department director’s words on the 5 o’clock news. And I wasn’t the only one. Friends around St. Louis wrote to me furious at his comments, which implied that stroads weren’t the real problem at all and said outright that St. Louis pedestrians needed to recognize the need for “a two way street of respect for each other’s safety” when it came to preventing their own deaths on the high-speed stroads he helped design and maintain. One friend told me it felt like Wilson was blaming those 78 victims for their deaths. Another told me she hoped the families of the people who were killed never watched the segment.

But today, I’ve realized there's no good reason for me to be angry at Wilson’s comments. And I have every reason to try to talk to him—and the thousands of people around the country like him who control the way our streets are built.

Here are the four things I wish I could say not just to Jamie Wilson, but to anyone who thinks that stroads aren’t one of the most pressing issues facing our cities today.

1. Human life is not a traffic problem to be solved.

One of the most common responses I hear from readers skeptical of the Strong Towns approach is a simple one: “At some point, don’t pedestrians have to be responsible for themselves?”

Aren't families and kids and fallible human beings the reason your city exists? If you're not building a safe place for them, you're failing. (Source: Michigan Municipal League)

Aren't families and kids and fallible human beings the reason your city exists? If you're not building a safe place for them, you're failing. (Source: Michigan Municipal League)

It’s a tough question. Because there’s no denying that people on foot do make our streets unpredictable, and that unpredictability can feel far more dangerous to someone behind a wheel than the experience of driving along a calm, uninterrupted stretch of highway. People get distracted and stumble into busy intersections with their heads buried in their cell phone screens, and most of us wouldn’t think twice before saying they’d “gotten themselves killed.” Children who dare to play outside their driveways — or who don’t have driveways — chase balls into the street and forget their parents’ warnings to look both ways. And that’s to say nothing of the drunk who’s coherent enough to skip driving home, but not coherent enough to notice the truck barreling down on them as they cross the stroad to the bus stop.

It’s so easy to say: They should have known better. It’s so easy to say: The crosswalk was just a little out of their way. It’s so easy to say that the world would be better off if we all just followed the rules and stayed in our lane.

But would we, really?

Take a step back, and think about that beautiful little kid with her ball, or that high-powered businesswoman making a call that will bring jobs to your city, or — yes — even that person who had an extra drink after dinner with a few friends. When you really stop to think about it, aren’t the people who live in your city and the messy, human things they do in it the reason your city exists at all? Aren’t they the reason you build roads going anywhere?

And even if you think I’m romanticizing things a bit, ask yourself this: Should the punishment for being a flawed human being who gets distracted (or plays too rough, or has an addiction, or any of the other messy human things we do) be a painful, sudden death under the wheels of a high-speed automobile?  

When we build stroads, that is the fate we are sentencing normal people to for the crime of moving through space in a non-orderly fashion. When we prioritize a driver’s right to arrive at their destination just a tiny bit faster (or a city government’s right to say they’ve cultivated their economy by building a super-wide street and employing a few more construction crews for a year) over the messy, unpredictable, exuberant aliveness that human beings will inevitably bring to anypublic space, we’re effectively stripping our streets of their richness. (And stripping our city budgets, literally — but more on that later.)

2. Pedestrians safety is a two way street. But too often, that street is a stroad.

Wilson said that pedestrian safety is a two way street. That implies that pedestrians are responsible for drivers’ safety, too — another comment I’ve heard again and again when I’ve advocated to #slowthecars.

How can you ask a person to obey the laws of this space when it was never meant for him in the first place? (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

How can you ask a person to obey the laws of this space when it was never meant for him in the first place? (Source: Johnny Sanphillippo)

But to say that pedestrian safety is a two way street is to imply that pedestrians and cars are moving in equal lanes. And, both literally and metaphorically, nothing could be further from the truth.  

78 people died in my city over the course of ten years when they were crossing roads designed almost exclusively for cars moving at high speeds, upon which they were also expected to walk. I have yet to hear of any comparable epidemic of automobile drivers being killed when they swerve to avoid pedestrians.

I have yet to hear of a pedestrian’s fragile human body somehow killing a driver inside their vehicle while leaving the pedestrian’s body miraculously intact — and the reverse happens every single day in America.

In my time at Strong Towns, I have heard city officials from across the country complain that pedestrians don’t always use crosswalks, that they ignore walk signals, that they don’t just follow the rules — or as Wilson put it, that “a lot of our problems come from people ignoring [pedestrian protections] that are already in place.” But no one seems to ask whether the rules we set for pedestrians, and the tiny segment of public space we allow them to use, serves them. And when we move outside of the bare minimums that pedestrians need and into the larger realm of what pedestrians want — which, yes, includes room to make mistakes — we give them almost nothing at all.  

My colleague, Chuck, said something the other day on our podcast that struck me. He said: “We should be able to walk into the middle of our intersections, backwards and blindfolded, and know that we will be safe.”

It might sound crazy. But it’s not crazier than expecting human beings to never be unpredictable. It’s not crazier than failing to recognize that the things traffic engineers might call human mistakes — a crowd of happy people wandering home after a visit to a busy farmer’s market, a group of friends stopping to admire a sunset over the skyline — are the very fabric of community and commerce. And if we want a city that’s active and financially healthy, we need to cultivate human disorder, rather than do whatever we can to minimize it.

And let’s get real: it’s certainly not crazier than expecting a person to walk as much of a quarter of a mile out of their way to reach a designated crosswalk when the city has placed a bus stop directly adjacent from their destination, which many of the pedestrians that die on St. Louis stroads are asked to do. And it’s definitely less cruel than assuming that everyone has the necessary mobility to make that quarter of a mile walk, or the money to buy a car and avoid the walk altogether.

Pedestrians should be responsible for their own safety. They should be able to go to their local leaders, tell them their needs, and feel confident that their leaders will listen. But when leaders don’t acknowledge how drastically non-level the playing field is for people on foot, I can absolutely see why they don’t.

3. Fixing stroads isn’t expensive. And not doing it is what’s making us go broke.

At one point in his interview, Wilson said something that neatly encapsulates the single greatest problem in how the traffic engineering profession thinks about our streets: “Our roads are designed a certain way, and it’s very costly to design any differently.”

This street was built incrementally over time at a human scale for far less than any strip mall or stroad full of fast food joints. (Source: Brett VA)

This street was built incrementally over time at a human scale for far less than any strip mall or stroad full of fast food joints. (Source: Brett VA)

The idea that there’s only way to build a road network — that is, to vastly overbuild it, adding lane after widened lane until no one would blame a driver for forgetting he’s not on a highway — is not only incorrect, but deeply limited, and I think officials like Wilson are in for a pleasant surprise when they begin to think differently. For one, it’s forgetting hundreds of years of human history, in which roads were simply never built this way. For another thing, it neglects the vast range of creative solutions available to us when we dare to think even a little bit differently — many of which cost next to nothing at all.

And it also ignores something crucial that Wilson may not even realize: that leaving cheaper, incremental options on the table and continuing to build stroads makes our city poorer in and of itself. Wide roads that pedestrians can barely dash across promote the kind of adjacent autocentric development that erodes our tax base and makes it all but impossible for us to afford to maintain those monster stroads we built. It’s a vicious cycle — and the only way to break it is to demand better, and think broader.  

Strong Towns was founded to teach this to people like Wilson, and the citizens who might open their leaders up to possibilities they may have never considered.  I'd invite Wilson to read nearly any article we publish— and, I hope, it will push him (and all our readers) to stop viewing pedestrian safety as a puzzle to be solved, and start viewing it as an opportunity to save lives and play a part in our city’s much-needed economic revival. I’d be excited to hear what he thought.

4. Everyone is a pedestrian — or they were, or they will be.

The unspoken implication of Wilson’s interview was a simple one: there are drivers, and there are pedestrians, and we need to keep both groups as happy as we can within reason.

We're all pedestrians at some point or another. Making streets safer for people walking makes them safer for everyone — no matter how they're traveling. (Source:  vonderauvisuals )

We're all pedestrians at some point or another. Making streets safer for people walking makes them safer for everyone — no matter how they're traveling. (Source: vonderauvisuals)

It seems like an innocuous statement. It’s also a dangerous one.

I know from walking on the stroads of St. Louis that there are many, many people who probably think of themselves as exclusively drivers. When I walk up Jefferson Avenue to go to my neighborhood library, I pass a drive-through McDonalds, a highway entrance, a gas station with a too-wide driveway that trucks hook into with barely a look, and acres of empty parking spaces. I see hundreds of cars on that 5 minute walk, and I rarely see another human being. No one in their right mind would walk this stretch of unprotected road; if my partner happens to bike to work that day, leaving behind the car we share for me to use, I don't often walk it either.

But every once in a while, I do see someone. Usually, it’s one of our city's unhoused people, clutching a grocery bag straining with clothes, or a kid on their way back from buying popsicles at the Save-A-Lot on a hot summer day. Once, on an afternoon run, I stumbled across an elderly woman who’d tripped just as her city bus was pulling away, and I stayed with her as we waited for the paramedics to come. She told me she usually tried to cross the six-lane road, but she hadn’t that day. She couldn’t bear to think what would have happened to her if she’d tripped in the crosswalk rather than on the sidewalk.

To say these people are “pedestrians” or “non-drivers” is to forget that they are all of us at some point in our lives. They’re people who are too young to drive a car, or too physically infirm in their old age, or too poor to afford one. They’re people who have visual or physical or other disabilities, and people who simply just want to go for a walk on a sunny day. When our city streets are designed properly, a pedestrian is, simply, anyone who feels like walking — and if you look at St. Louis’ many non-stroads on a summer night when the Botanical Gardens are hosting a concert series, you’ll see that more people than not will get out on foot if it’s even remotely an option.

If I could sit down with Jamie Wilson, and officials across the country who give interviews like he gave, I’d tell him that eliminating stroads isn’t about adding pedestrian infrastructure, or increasing the length of the crosswalk signal, or making any "pedestrian accommodations" at all. It’s about fundamentally rethinking what our streets are for — and going back to the ancient, not-so-radical idea that they are for people. And when we start thinking that way, we can do amazing things.

(Top photo source: David Topping)