Mixing high speed traffic and people on foot or bikes is a recipe for disaster. The findings of a Palm Beach MPO study bear this out, showing the extraordinarily dangerous nature of the county’s arterial road network. Below is a map showing the hot spots identified. Thanks to Wes Blackman for reporting on this MPO meeting and recording it. [links to Wes’ blog and video recording of meeting here]
— Wes Blackman (@WesBlackman) September 20, 2016
“Very similar intersections. Very similar land uses. Unfortunately, very similar outcomes.” – consultant speaking regarding Military Trail/Okeechobee intersection and Military Trail/Forest Hill intersection
The map is revealing, but it’s not surprising to readers of this blog. Discussions about road safety tend to focus on band-aid fixes but gloss over the more fundamental issue at hand. What’s not often discussed is the nature of these dangerous roadways and their adjacent land development pattern. The common denominator?
They’re all stroads.
What’s a stroad? It’s a word coined by Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn to describe what he calls “The futon of transportation options”, in that it neither moves cars quickly and safely from point A to B (a road) nor does it provide an enjoyable human habitat for people to gather and enjoy life in public space (a street). When you put lots of people in a complex environment with cars moving fast, you get lots of crashes. Here is a video explaining what a stroad is. Stroads are low tax productivity yielding, high crash inducing, human meat grinders of junk infrastructure. No matter where you’re from, think of the ugliest, most generic road in town and it’s probably a stroad. With the exception of a couple blocks of urban Atlantic Avenue, where the sheer number of people walking are likely responsible for a spike in the numbers, every one of the segments identified is a stroad in varying degrees.
Palm Beach County is full of stroads and they’re difficult to deal with. These problems can’t all be put on the traffic engineers either because adjacent land uses have a lot to do with the stroadification of our county; it’s not just about the road’s geometry but what it is adjacent to. Look at Indiantown Road as a good example, a stroad-in-progress. It’s the result of many small decisions to diminish its efficacy as a road over time. Add a turn lane here, a traffic signal there. The new subdivision demands another light 500 feet away. Before you know it, cars are stopping, switching lanes, and turning so often that the road’s effectiveness as a high speed connection between two places is severely compromised. All these movements and differences in speeds make it a dangerous environment for everyone involved: drivers, bicyclists, people walking. And all these intensified land uses (yet low tax yielding) around it generate more traffic of various modes and more crashes. Since stroads aren’t streets and don’t operate at slow speed as streets do, crashes are very serious when they happen.
All this new car-oriented development along a stroad necessitates lots of turn pockets and traffic signals in order to access the strip malls and subdivisions that flourish in a car-only environment. With each new development, more degradation of the road takes places. Over time, it becomes more like Okeechobee Boulevard, with so much stop-and-go and traffic lights that it takes 15 minutes to drive 3 miles.
Changes to the roadway design are often said to be “improvements” or “upgrades”, but the question must be asked: Improvements for whom? A new traffic signal for Wal-Mart is a great advantage for Wal-Mart, but doesn’t serve people trying to get from point A to point B quickly; for those people, it is an impairment to the functioning of the road rather than an improvement.
At the next public meeting when the traffic engineer suggests a “road improvement”, ask that it be called a “road impairment” instead.
Many of these stroads were created over time in a process of degradation, from road to stroad. I’m reminded of an image posted on the Historic Boynton Beach Facebook page, depicting Congress Avenue in 1964. Notice the simple geometry and lack of signals, driveways, turn pockets, etc. It used to work as a road before it got ‘stroadified’ into the monstrosity that it is today, mucked up by all the subdivisions and forgettable strip malls that line it today. You can’t get anywhere fast driving on Congress Avenue, but nor can you walk along it without fearing for your life.
Congress and Hypoluxo, 1964
Congress and Hypoluxo as it looks today.
The best of the worst
Over time, an environment is created that was never designed to safely accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists and never will. The best that can be done now with many of these crash hot spots is to slap some special “countermeasures” in the road design to try and make matters a little less intolerable. It’s not an easy job, but it’s important to do what we can to make conditions a little safer for the vulnerable populations that tend to be victims of these poorly designed environments. All that can be done is to try to make it the best of the worst at this stage.
Let’s make these dangerous stroads a little less dangerous where we can. But most importantly, let’s stop building them in the first place. Rather than an inexorable decline, let’s build town centers and neighborhoods with great streets and keep our roads functioning as connections between these great places.