Giving Strong Citizens the Vocabulary to Speak Up for Change

A decade into the life of Strong Towns, we've learned that one of the most powerful things we can do to inspire grassroots change is give advocates the vocabulary to see their cities and towns through new eyes. Sometimes all you need is the ability to put words to a problem you've become aware of but have never quite articulated.

That was the case for longtime Strong Towns member Michael Smith of Rockford, Illinois. Smith explains,

Strong Towns was formative for me in my decision to leave a career in ministry and pursue graduate studies in urban planning.

After moving back home to Rockford, I found myself facing very fundamental questions about what was happening to my city. And those questions were related to transportation and land use. "Why are my friends and family living outside the city and not in the city like they once did? I can’t do my shopping downtown—we’ve never been able to do that. Why is that?"

Faced with these fundamental questions I didn't have a vocabulary for about why my town was the way it was, Strong Towns gave me that vocabulary.

And "stroad" was an early word in the lexicon.

Via Cultivate Collaborative. Click to view larger.

On that note, perhaps the single most influential thing Strong Towns has achieved in its first decade is popularizing the term stroad. Coined by Charles Marohn as a hybrid of the words "street" and "road," a stroad, in Strong Towns parlance, is the kind of wide, dangerous, unpleasant urban street a planner might call an "arterial."

The stroad is the futon of transportation: just as a futon is an uncomfortable couch that turns into an uncomfortable bed, a stroad tries to do two things at once and ends up failing at both. Those two things are:

  • Move large volumes of traffic quickly and efficiently (the function of a road), and

  • Provide a platform for local businesses and residents to interact with each other and build wealth (the function of a street).

The former objective means there will be cars moving at high speed through the area. The latter means there will be people on foot trying to navigate the area in a variety of ways and directions. The combination of fast-moving cars and a complex, unpredictable environment is a recipe for statistically inevitable tragedy.

Stroads Kill

Strong Towns member Michael Smith analyzed where pedestrian crashes occur in his city of Rockford, IL.

Car crashes take 40,000 American lives each year. They are such a part of the fabric of our world that we often don't question why they occur, or whether they are inevitable. We discuss them as random tragedies, or if anything we get angry at one or more of the parties involved in the crash for their recklessness or inattention. Rarely do most of us consider the role of the built environment in causing—or preventing—these tragic events.

And yet, when you actually start to gather data, you see just how much the environment matters. Because a shocking percentage of the crashes that kill or injure pedestrians occur on just one type of urban thoroughfare: the stroad.

Smith, as someone who primarily gets around his city by walking and biking, saw this. He wanted his city's officials to see it too. So, when it came time to write a thesis for his master's degree program at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Smith decided to make his an exploration of pedestrian crashes in Rockford: where do they happen, what are the features of the places where they happen, and most importantly, what might be done about it?

Towards a More Walkable Rockford

We published a post of Smith's about his preliminary work in August 2018. Digging into and mapping the city's own crash data from 2007–2016 confirmed his prediction that these crashes and deaths were overwhelmingly concentrated—90% over a nine-year period—on arterial roadways, almost all of which were streets that one could describe as a stroad.

For the second stage of his work, Smith conducted field observations of collision-prone locations identifiied in the data. To observe how the built environment is related to pedestrian and motorist behavior, Smith placed cameras at three key intersections on State Street, the city's main east-west stroad, and recorded video of pedestrian-vehicle interactions over a period of several weeks. The video clips discussed in the report are viewable on YouTube here.

From these videos, Smith was able to identify not just that these were dangerous environments, but aspects of why. His report contains observations such as these:

Site 1 includes many examples of pedestrians and motorists starting and stopping as they communicate who is going to proceed first. One example... shows pedestrians stopping for vehicles turning left from State onto Jefferson; the pedestrian stops in the crosswalk and motions with his or her hand for the motorist to proceed.

Among those activities involving a wheelchair, all but one involved a pedestrian avoiding the designated crosswalk ramps at the intersection and using a combination of the vehicle curb cuts and roadway instead. This activity appears to be due to the condition of the crosswalk ramps which fail to meet the latest ADA requirements.

A recurring takeaway from Smith's video observations is the following: Given a place they need to get, and no straightforward, safe way of getting there, people will do as people do, and they will improvise. When you combine this with stroad environments, many of which have inadequate or no sidewalks or other pedestrian accommodations, dangerous close calls result—and sometimes tragedy.

The locations of pedestrian collisions in Rockford, as mapped by Michael Smith: these incidents are concentrated heavily on arterial stroads. Click map to view larger.

It's important to do this kind of work to make a convincing case for improvements using locally specific examples and data. It's also important, says Smith, to keep in mind the broader context:

I started as someone who primarily gets around my city through walking and biking, and was frustrated by connectivity gaps in both of those networks, and by my perceived lack of safety.

At first, you don’t have to be someone who wants to go to grad school for these issues: if you just want to go from point A to point B and you’re upset about it, you’re probably going to find some good content on Strong Towns to say you’re not alone.

Strong Towns helped me answer, “This is why there are sidewalk gaps. This is why I don’t see more people biking and walking.” Chuck’s work in Springfield, Massachusetts in particular helped me understand this is an entrenched problem and we’re not alone.

For a non-professional like Smith was once, it can be intimidating to even try to unpack the assumptions behind the conventional wisdom of traffic engineers, let alone challenge that conventional wisdom. They have books of standards and guidelines—yet those standards tend to reflect a choice to prioritize traffic speed and volume over both the financial productivity of our places and the safety of the people in them.

It’s not enough to say “Build sidewalks for folks. It’s about the whole land use and transportation strategy that is predicated on auto-mobility. 89% of all commute trips in the City of Rockford are made in vehicles with one occupant. If we do not provide meaningful transportation options that increase occupancy rates and improve accessibility for non-motorized roadway users, pedestrians will continue to get hit.

If we continue to let level-of-service metrics dictate design, people will continue to get hit.

We're equipping citizen activists and professionals alike with the vocabulary, arguments, and insights needed to recognize the biases underlying stroad design and push against them; to insist that our streets have to change.

Have you helped someone in your community understand the issues with stroads? Have you used Strong Towns arguments in a presentation before your city council, or in a research project like Michael Smith's? If so, join the movement and help ensure that we can continue to produce quality content that gives you the vocabulary to articulate what needs to change on your community's streets, and why.