Thursday, April 3, 2014

What is a "stroad?"

I saw my country turned into a coast-to-coast strip mall
--GREG BROWN, "THE POET GAME"

My vote for neologism of the century goes to stroad, coined by Chuck Marohn of the Minnesota-based Strong Towns organization to mean "a street-road hybrid," combining commercial development with highway design. Typically accompanying suburban sprawl, it is congested, unsafe (for cars but especially for anything else) and ugly. Parking lots around big box stores and shopping plazas mean there is too much distance between things to do anything but drive from store to store. A street contains shops and houses in an urban setting; in Marohn's words, it is "a platform for creating and capturing value." A road is a "high-speed connection between two [locations]." A stroad tries to do both and accomplishes neither very well. The spread of development means the area is much less cost-efficient than a traditional downtown, and the government will never recoup enough tax revenue to pay for constructing and maintaining the stroad.

A decade or so ago Highway 965 north of Iowa City was a road. Thanks to energetic development in North Liberty, it is now a full-on stroad. In Cedar Rapids the epitome of a stroad is Collins Road NE between 1st Avenue and Council Street, but there are plenty of other examples, including 1st Avenue itself, Blairs Ferry and Edgewood Roads, and practically every major thoroughfare on the southwest side.
(A stroadish section of Center Point Rd NE, south of 42nd Street.
Five lanes, no sidewalk, large parking lots, curb cuts, 
buildings at odd angles to each other.)



 (Two views of 1st Avenue East, which is five lanes wide...
six at this intersection with College Drive.)

I mention Collins Road in particular, not just because it's awful, but because it is part of State Highway 100, which is soon to be extended around the west side of the city to meet up with U.S. 30. The existing Highway 100 is really three different roads:
  1. west of Council Street is about a mile of highway with no commercial development, which will speed you on your way, but only as far as Edgewood Road;
  2. the absurdly congested stretch from Council to 1st;
  3. the most recently built section from 1st Avenue to State Highway 13, which is mostly within the City of Marion. There is some commercial development, but not nearly as much as on the oldest part, with the future direction undetermined and I imagine dependent on a lot of variables.
Stroads like Collins Road get that way, partly because that's how every other town in America is developing too, and partly because local governments have no incentive not to load up mostly state-financed highways with commercial development, which will add to the city's tax base.  (So, for instance, Marion has revenue-related motivation for developing its stretch of Highway 100 into a stroad if it can.) Marohn argues that there is a perverse incentive at work: the city gets the financial benefits of development but bears none of the cost, because state highways are built and maintained by the state. (The state is ponying up nearly $200 million to build the next Highway 100 extension; see Ford, cited below.)

From this week's Strong Towns Podcast.
If you're a local government, there's very little cost for doing that. You've got this highway, that's moving a lot of cars, and if you can get an access off of that... You're not paying for the highway, as a local government. You're not paying for the access--maybe a small, small part of it, but the majority is going to be paid by someone else. So what you're doing is essentially... co-opting the collective wealth that has been built out of that highway investment for your locality. That aligns with the interests of the private property owners that live along that, in the short-term. So everyone's mutual interest at the local level is to co-opt and mine the value off of that highway: increase the property value, increase the local tax base, etc., etc.
The logic of co-opting value from highways-someone-else-pays-for reaches an apotheosis of sorts in the opposition of the International Franchisee Association and shipping companies like FedEx to proposals to use tolls to fund maintenance of interstate highways. "People aren't going to stop at a McDonald's or a hotel if they have to get off the Interstate and pay a toll, then pay a toll to get back on," says franchisee lobbyist Jay B. Perron in Friday's New York Times (Nixon, cited below). This amounts to a claim by the shippers and fast-food restaurants to partial public subsidies for their businesses. Good deal for them if they can get it. Somewhere Adam Smith is laughing: He argued, in The Wealth of Nations, Book V, for toll-based financing to ensure highways are only built where they're economically viable; he was, of course, notably ambivalent about government's ability to plan rationally in the face of powerful political demands. From such as well-connected fast-food and shipping empires.

It's encouraging that proposals for the extension of Route 100 call for a limited access highway with exits at E Avenue, Ellis Road, F Avenue, and maybe one other. So we're not anticipating a lot of curb cuts, nor non-automotive traffic. Still the amount of development that is anticipated to be leveraged off this construction, particularly with the "standard development practice scenario," creates powerful, well-connected interests in a free and arguably unnecessary highway.

Can there be stroads without commercial development? 2nd and 3rd Avenues Southeast may also qualify as stroads, even though they have little to no commercial development above 10th Street. If they're not stroads they're a weird kind of something that deserves some derogatory neologism: three lanes of high-speed through traffic slashing through a residential neighborhood.

(Traffic on 3rd Avenue SE approaching Redmond Park. Three lanes, plus room for parking on either side puts a lot of distance between you and your "neighbors" across the street.)


As you can see from this picture of 2nd Avenue SE, the posted speed limit is 30, but only the self-disciplined drive that slowly when life presents us with a street disguised as a long stretch of open road. Tough luck for pedestrians trying to cross. (On a bicycle, I feel safe on 2nd Avenue but not on the similarly constructed 3rd Avenue. Maybe it's because 2nd stops at 15th and 13th Streets, and now ends at 12th? 3rd Avenue gives cars a clear shot all the way from 10th to 19th.)

The new Wellington Heights Neighborhood Plan proposes to convert 2nd and 3rd Avenues to two-way, one lane in each direction, with bike lanes on both sides at least on 3rd. I think this will do a lot to slow traffic through the neighborhood, which will in turn enhance "connectivity," or the feeling of living in a neighborhood. Will it at the same time negatively affect overall traffic flow in the city? Maybe not: The authors of the plan argue "actual traffic volumes are somewhat low" on 2nd and 3rd, such that these wide streets "are 'overdesigned' for their current and most likely future function in the local and regional transportation system" (p. 23).

Whether and how these construction plans proceed, we seem to be getting past the point in time when development was all about moving cars. That's a good sign. And if Cedar Rapids drivers can deal with redesigned streets through Wellington Heights, I can probably reconcile myself to extending Highway 100.

SOURCES

Tom Condon, "Farmington Avenue Has Become a 'Stroad,'" Hartford Courant, 15 January 2014, http://articles.courant.com/2014-01-15/news/hc-op-place-condon-farmington-avenue-0116-20140115_1_farmington-avenue-one-lane-bike-lane

"Corridor MPO" website, http://www.corridormpo.com/

George C. Ford, "Highway 100 Extension Funding Approved in 5-Year Road Plan," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 11 June 2013, http://thegazette.com/2013/06/11/highway-100-extension-funding-approved-in-5-year-road-plan/

Lee Hermiston, "Cedar Rapids Neighbors, Police Credit Communication for Decrease in Crime Statistics," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 3 April 2014, http://thegazette.com/2014/04/03/cedar-rapids-neighbors-police-credit-communication-for-decrease-in-crime-statistics/

Charles Marohn, "The Stroad," Strong Towns, 4 March 2013, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2013/3/4/the-stroad.html#.UzruH6K9ZPc

"Marohn on Transportation," Strong Towns Podcast 168, 27 March 2014, http://www.strongtowns.org/storage/podcasts/2014/032814_Burleson_Marohn_Part2.mp3

Ron Nixon, "Agreement on Interstate Repair Needs, but Not on How to Pay for Them," New York Times, 4 April 2014, A13, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/us/agreement-on-interstate-repair-needs-but-not-on-how-to-pay-for-them.html?ref=us 

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