We Need a Sea Change in How We Think About Roads and Streets


You are grossly negligent if you show a conscious indifference to the safety of others. In other words, you’re aware that the safety of others is endangered, but you don’t do anything to act on that knowledge.
— Charles Marohn

Virtually nothing Strong Towns has done or said in ten years has inspired as much anger or controversy as the times we have argued that the engineering profession, for designing and building unsafe streets, deserves a share of the blame for the statistically inevitable tragedies that occur on those streets.

And yet, this is some of the most important work we have done in our ten years. Because lives are at stake. People continue to be killed on urban streets that are designed to move cars quickly through complex environments.

Among the cases that Strong Towns President Charles Marohn has written about at length:

There’s more where that came from. All over this country, we build urban environments where we tell ourselves we want lively human activity. We fill them up with businesses, libraries, parks, schools, homes, where people are certain to be coming and going. And then we run stroads through them that are engineered so that drivers will travel at speeds that will kill a person who is hit.

We design streets that are forgiving of driver error—wide lanes, clear zones in case you run off the road—as 1800 cars did in 15 months on on road studied in Orlando. But in doing so, we ensure these streets are utterly unforgiving of errors committed by those on foot. We do this despite that we know death will be the statistically inevitable outcome sooner or later.

Is the engineering profession intellectually and institutionally prepared for a world in which we stop doing this, and accept that urban environments require slow streets?

When you mix fast moving traffic with complexity, it is statistically inevitable that you will have tragedy.

For #8 in our Greatest Hits collection of the best Strong Towns Podcast episodes you may have missed the first time around, here’s “Gross Negligence” from June 2015. In it, Chuck Marohn describes:

  • An exercise from army basic training in which he had to crawl through a trench while an expert marksman sent bullets whizzing nearby. No parent would let their child do this. So why do we accept that this is basically the condition of being on the sidewalk of an American stroad?

  • Why we tend to associate speed with mobility and economic opportunity—and why we’re wrong.

  • The incoherence of common responses to tragedy on our streets, such as a proposal to remedy an unsafe highway through a park in Buffalo by simultaneously making it more like a city street… and more like a high-speed road.

  • What we would do if we actually wanted to make safety the number one priority on our streets.

If you missed this podcast back in 2015, give it a listen. (Or if you didn’t!) And if you find this kind of work important and morally urgent, support the Strong Towns movement by becoming a member.

(Cover photo: Charles Edward Miller via Flickr.)


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