For much of the last century, urban planning involved ever wider streets, both for major thoroughfares and for residential side streets. The justifications for this ever increasing road girth has ranged from emergency vehicle access to traffic flow. In many ways, it seemed yet another manifestation of suburban sprawl. However, unlike sprawling neighborhoods, the poor aesthetics caused by sprawling asphalt replacing landscaping and residences is less debatable.
The Need for Narrower:
Of course, there are numerous other reasons to slim suburban streets, including:
- Reduce public maintenance and repair costs.
- Reduce run-off pollution.
- Reduce injuries and fatalities through traffic calming.
- Increase property values through improved neighborhood aesthetics, and perceived safety and quiet.
However, the movement of transforming wider streets into narrower streets in this country has been almost entirely limited to new construction or, in the case of retrofits, major commercial thoroughfares. In the latter instance, “road diets” have often meant something different than the literal slimming that is the subject of this article. These road diets have typically been a traffic calming and bicycle transit enhancement involving the reduction of auto-lanes from four to three and the addition of bike lanes. Where more literal street slimming road diets proposals have been made, they involved dense urban corridors and public streetscape enhancements. In each of these instances, the proposals involved publicly funded improvements. Little attention has been given to street slimming retrofits of suburban residential streets. While safety is equally, if not more, imperative in such streets, it has more to do with children than bicycles. The lack of density along residential streets and the vastness of the suburban road network make public expenditures to accomplish such road diets daunting and impractical.
But what if the excess street land was simply given to the adjacent property owners? Wouldn’t these property owners be motivated to improve their newly annexed property? As for getting locally elected officials to adopt such programs, local residential constituents would directly benefit, even profit, from narrowing of their streets. As noted, neighborhoods with narrow streets already have higher property values simply from being more attractive and desirable. Hence, after a few successful implementations became widely known, local residential constituencies would likely become a driving force for such programs.
How easy or inexpensive could this be? A city could simply stripe the new width. From that point forward, the city would only be responsible for the pavement between the stripes, and cars could travel only in that area. The area outside the stripes would belong to the adjacent property owners, who would be allowed to install curbs and landscaping in the annexed property at their leisure. Human nature being what it is (“keeping up with the Joneses”), such improvements would likely occur fairly quickly, save for a few holdouts. Clearly such a program is more appropriate for suburban residential streets than downtown streets where simply restriping the streets and allowing the property owners to decide their pace and style of landscaping wouldn’t work so well.
So what are the obstacles to such a program? Well there are several but none, in the balance of considerations, outweighs the reasons for proceeding with suburban street slimming programs. For example:
Aesthetics: As one planner colleague stated:
“If it is not done in a uniform manner, its going to look haphazard. At a minimum, curbs and bike lanes (where useful) would need to be poured.”
I partially agree with this statement – the haphazard portion. However, when the baseline is the existing excess asphalt, ”haphazard” is not necessarily a negative. In this instance, haphazard means some property owners will landscape and install curbs on their new property sooner than others, just as some homeowners care for their homes more than others. Of course, new regulatory and other programs will need to be conceived, designed, and implemented to regulate the installation of curbs by homeowners (or by municipalities alone or in shared expense programs with homeowners). So, like anything else, there are some details to be worked out but nothing that is extraordinary.
Utilities: Again, my planner colleague speaks:
”The utilities need to remain accessible. In places without alleys, you have water, gas, electric, phone and sewer to deal with. They all have their rules. But certainly relocating any of them is not cheap but the flipside is that removing paving makes them cheaper to repair.”
Again, utilities will need to be factored into any such street slimming program but they are not a reason to forego such programs altogether.
Property tax assessments: Its unlikely that adding a strip of unimproved property would immediately increase homeowner property tax assessments. However conceivably, once the strip is improved, the property could be assessed at a higher level though generally, lot size is much less of a direct value enhancer than structural improvements. More likely, most property assessment increases, and hence tax increases, will result from the overall increased desirability of the neighborhood – in essence, gentrification. This is the type of increased property valuations sought by suburban homeowners rather than opposed by them. Of course, municipalities also desire such increases and its revenue. Nevertheless, there could be a number of methods to allay homeowner concerns about an immediate effect on property tax assessments, e.g., granting property owners a limited time exclusion of the annex, or granting homeowners an easement rather than title to the annex.
Emergency vehicle access and traffic flow: These reasons have turned out to be largely a farce. If emergency vehicle access was substantially restricted by narrow streets, this country would be widening all of its narrow streets. Instead, most of this consideration is addressed on existing narrow streets through streetside parking restrictions. Moreover, any health and safety benefits derived from greater emergency vehicle access from wide streets has more than likely been offset by additional injuries and fatalities resulting from the faster driving such streets encourage. Municipalities are constantly barraged with requests for speed bumps, stop signs, and other traffic calming devices by local residents attempting to reduce traffic speed. These traffic calming devices offset any advantage wide streets gain for emergency vehicle access. As for the issue of traffic flow, the foregoing discussion highlights the fact that rapid traffic flow is as much the problem as it is a goal. Current trends demonstrate, especially on residential streets, traffic flow is a lower priority than traffic calming. Street narrowing accomplishes traffic calming simultaneously with other neighborhood and societal goals. While street narrowing may not be appropriate on all residential streets, it certainly is on many.
In sum, a street slimming property give-away program may cause some planners to be disturbed by visions of untidy street frontages with double parking, non-contiguous curbs, and deteriorating street shoulder asphalt. However upon closer examination, it would seem to be a feasible strategy for an accelerated transformation of ugly, polluting, expensive, and unsafe asphalt expanses to safer, more attractive, environmentally friendly, and less costly narrow residential streets – especially given that the worst case scenarios of such a program seem no worse than the current condition of such roads. Of course, the program wouldn’t be implemented in wholesale national fashion. A few pilot programs would be the best way to test it – so what are we waiting for?
All photos by author
Thank you to planning consultant extraordinaire and fellow UrbDeZine author Paul McNeil for reviewing the outline of this post and commenting thereon.