The Joys of Through Streets

Having a grid of through streets was something I more or less took for granted for most of my life.  I grew up in Lancaster, PA, went to college in Oberlin, Ohio, and then moved to Cleveland, Ohio…all of these places had an abundance of through streets, laid out more or less in a grid, so that there were many different ways of getting from point A to point B.  It’s important to recognize that richly connected street layouts have been the norm in towns and urban areas throughout human history…most older cities and neighborhoods are laid out this way.  If you are viewing this blog entry from its own URL, the image in the header is from Stavanger, Norway, founded as a city in 1425, but with a history going back well before then.

However, there were various points in my life in which I was visiting people in areas that did not have through streets.  My first experience with such an area was in high school, where I became close with several friends who lived towards the back of a remote housing subdivision laid out in a one-way-in, one-way-out fashion.  It was unrealistic to walk or bike to, and even driving there seemed like a chore.  Later, in Cleveland, I started a computer consulting business, which took me literally everywhere in the Greater Cleveland metro area.  I visited businesses in office parks with a similar setup as well.  I noticed that when driving in these areas, I was spending more time in my car, driving much longer distances, and often, spending a lot of time sitting in traffic as well–much longer than in Cleveland’s dense downtown area.

I chose a photo to illustrate what happens without through streets; there are several reasons I have for picking this particular photo.  First, it’s black-and-white so I can draw on it in color.  Second, it’s from the 40’s, showing that this sort of layout of streets goes back a long time.  Third, it’s from New Zealand, a country that has a strong reputation as a leader in environmentalism, and I think there’s a certain irony in that.

B&W Aerial Photo of Housing Subdivision without a grid of streets

Aerial Photo from Oranga, Aukland, 1947, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

What happens without enough through streets is best illustrated by drawing on the picture:

Path drawn on aerial photo from two nearby houses that requires a long drive

This type of layout creates unnecessarily long trips.

These two houses are right next to each other as the bird flies, but the distance required to travel between them by car, counting houses to get a rough estimate of distance, is well over 7 times this distance.  On foot, it might be possible to cut through yards if you are on friendly terms with the neighbors, but in today’s society with the trend towards putting up fences, this is probably not a possibility.

Let me give an example of an actual trip I had to make, here in Delaware: View Trip in Google Maps.  This trip, 2.4 miles as the bird flies, became 6.2 miles.  This sort of occurrence is typical in suburban Delaware.

With a grid of streets, the “worst-case scenario” for distance you’ll ever have to drive to get from point A to point B is if you are going “diagonally” against the grid, and then you’ll only have to drive the square-root-of-two times the distance as the bird flies, plus one city block if both destinations are exactly in the middle of the block.  In the Delaware example above, that would be 3.4 miles.

Longer driving distances puts more cars on the road:

When everyone has to drive longer distances, cars are going to be on the road for longer.  2-3 times the distance equates to 2-3 times the amount of cars on the road, relative to the same amount of travel.  Traffic congestion becomes a problem, and more resources must be spent on building and maintaining larger roads and more roads to accommodate the traffic.

Most people don’t see this problem because, at least in most reasonably prosperous parts of the U.S., roads are continuously expanded to a wide enough level to accommodate the traffic flowing on them.  People don’t think about how much money and resources are being put to use to make the roads wide enough that people aren’t stuck in traffic on a daily basis.  And yet most of these resources are unnecessary waste.  Having a grid of streets provides “free lunch” so to speak…fewer resources are used, and yet people get more out of it.

Through streets promote walking and biking:

People often think that sequestering neighborhoods with limited through streets makes the neighborhood more friendly to walkers, bikers, and children, because it discourages fast-moving through traffic.  There is likely some truth to this statement, but I think the amount of truth is limited–I’ve seen my fair share of people speeding out of control in isolated suburban housing subdivisions.

There are also ways in which having through streets makes an area more friendly to pedestrians.  When it’s possible to get somewhere with a shorter travel distance, it becomes much easier and more attractive to walk or bike–think of that neighborhood pictured above: you might be more likely to drive to your neighbor’s house if you’re in a hurry and not able to cut through those back yards.

Also, one-way-in, one-way-out development usually requires people to travel on a large, major road in order to get anywhere outside of their immediate neighborhood.  These major roads usually have heavy, fast-moving traffic, and are often unpleasant to walk on even if they have sidewalks.  Grid patterns in cities and small towns allow people to avoid major streets if they want, by crossing them once and then walking parallel to them on a smaller, quieter street.

Bottlenecks:

Anyone with any amount of driving experience knows that traffic tends to back up mostly in certain places, called “bottlenecks”, where the roads are least able to accommodate the traffic wanting to go through them.  Having only one or two ways into an area creates traffic bottlenecks–this tends to be most apparent in busy commercial areas.  The traffic scenario in areas without through streets is thus worse than one might expect from the increased distance/cars-on-road argument alone.

Closed roads for emergencies or construction:

Having few or no alternate routes creates a serious problem in the case of an emergency that could block or obstruct a road, such as a tree falling, flooding, or a car accident.  It also makes road maintenance much more inconvenient.  Having ample through streets makes these issues at worst a minor inconvenience.

What can you do?

Neighborhood, town, urban, and suburban design is a very long-term process and is slow to change, but there are still things you can do, especially in the long-run.  It may be months or years before a time comes to act on this issue, but keep it in the back of your mind.  Here are some ideas of how you can help:

  • Consider neighborhood layout as a factor when choosing where to live.  All other things equal, living where there is a grid of streets will not only make your life easier, but also contributes to a more efficient use of resources in society as a whole.  Neighborhood construction is ultimately driven by the financial bottom line: if people preferred to buy houses in neighborhoods with through streets, and wanted to work and shop in neighborhoods with grids of streets, developers would start building neighborhoods like this again and cities would make laws that encouraged or even required such layouts.
  • If you are connected to any decision making board, anything from a city council to a state legislature to a state’s department of transportation or any other relevant governing body, use your voice to promote legislation, zoning, and policy that encourages or requires having through streets.  Make the reduction of overall traffic and prevention of bottlenecks a selling point for having as many through streets as possible.
  • Talk about these issues with your local politicians; let them know that you appreciate through streets and want their local roads laid out so that there are many ways from point A to point B.  Let them know that you want them to do everything they can to ensure that new development happens in such a way that all areas of the city are richly connected with through streets, and that you would like to see existing areas are changed to be more like this.
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