Stroads are expensive, dangerous, and bad for economic growth in communities throughout Canada and the US.
‘Stroad’ is a portmanteau of the word ‘street’ and ‘road’, used to describe an increasingly common city planning design used primarily in Canada and the United States. Stroads are expensive, unappealing, and dangerous, contributing to many pedestrian deaths and large amounts of traffic congestion. In a metaphor almost-universally understood, retired land planner and engineer Charles L. Marohn, Jr. describes stroads as “the futon of the transportation system. A futon is an uncomfortable couch that converts into an uncomfortable bed, something that performs two functions but does neither well.”
Streets vs roads: What’s the difference?
An easy way to differentiate between roads and streets is to think of roads as thoroughfares and streets as destinations. With wide lanes and big signs, roads lack amenities for pedestrians. Roads are designed to get drivers where they want to go; they exist simply to connect destinations. Roads, by nature, prioritize speed over safety, because roads are built to move vehicle traffic efficiently.
Streets, on the other hand, are places people enjoy spending time in and want to visit. They are typically flanked by buildings on both sides, and offer shops, services, pedestrian-friendly crossings, and amenities. Unlike roads, well-designed streets create vibrant, thriving community hubs where people naturally want to linger. Streets encourage cars to move more slowly because activity is focused on human interaction: shopping, dining, or meeting friends are all possible on a safe, well-designed public street. Additionally, streets are able to use space in a way that creates value: cafés, festivals, and markets are some ways a lively street can build community and grow culture.
The problem with stroads
Stroads try to perform the functions of a road and street at the same time—and end up doing both things badly. They are common all over the United States and Canada, where high speed thoroughfares run alongside sparse, uninviting sidewalks with sprawling parking lots, warehouses, and big box stores. By design, stroads neglect pedestrian or cyclist friendly amenities such as benches, bike parking, or waste bins. Stroads discourage people from staying. On top of being uninviting, stroads are costly. They require expensive maintenance, generate less economic activity, and deliver a smaller property tax revenue than well-developed streets. In short, stroads are a lost economic opportunity. Besides being expensive and unpleasant – stroads are also dangerous, contributing to many collisions and deaths every year. Roadway design strongly affects how people drive, as noted by Smart Growth America’s annual road safety report. Stroads prioritize traffic speed over pedestrian safety, creating unsafe, disconnected neighborhoods. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were fewer cars on the road, US pedestrian fatalities continued to rise, up a shocking 62% since 2009, pointing to an urgent need to reapproach our urban planning.
Making stroads safer
Fixing stroads usually involves one of two solutions: converting the stroad into a road, or alternatively into a street. Converting it into a road means prioritizing traffic, limiting pedestrian access, and separating bicycle traffic with flexible bollards or other types of lane dividers. Turning a stroad into a street, in contrast, means slowing traffic, prioritizing pedestrians and transit, and adding more buildings and public amenities.
Several successful examples of stroad-to-street conversions have resulted in safer, more pedestrian friendly environments, increased economic activity, and a vibrant street culture including farmer’s markets and festivals. Transforming a stroad into a street requires prioritizing a comfortable walking experience and focusing on human mobility such as walking and cycling. Adding trees to sidewalks is one way to make walking and cycling environment less hostile, offering shade and making the streetscape more attractive. Tree grates can add character to tree-lined pathways, protecting tree roots while keeping sidewalks neat. Turning a stroad into a vibrant street takes time, and the focus should be on incremental investments and improvements.
Ultimately, when it comes to eliminating stroads, communities need to decide if they want to prioritize community or efficient vehicle transportation, and engineer accordingly.