Stroads and Strails

By Alon Levy

In 2011, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns coined the word stroad for a street that functions as a road. Chuck argues that there should be a separation between streets, which are destinations in and of themselves and are to be lined with walkable retail, and roads, which exist to move people between destinations. In contrast, auto-oriented arterials function as both: they are designed for high speed for through-traffic but also have extensive streetside destinations built at automobile scale, hence the portmanteau stroad.

In the last seven years this mentality has become quite popular within online urbanist circles. Unfortunately, it misses why major streets arise in the first place. Moreover, this is not just an issue for cars and car traffic – other modes of transportation want to funnel local and interregional traffic through the same corridors, creating a number of arteries that are in essence strails, like the Berlin S-Bahn. Good planning has to recognize that where people to go through and where people want to go to are often the same, and provide road and rail infrastructure of sufficient size to accommodate.

What is a street, anyway?

The main purpose of a city street is to connect destinations within the city. Major streets routinely form out of trails, post roads, and turnpikes connecting the city with villages that it swallows as it industrializes and grows. Broadway in New York started out as an Indian trail, the Strand grew as a road connecting London with Westminster and had previously been part of an intercity Roman road, Champs Elysees was built as a promenade into the periphery of Paris and gradually filled in with palaces, the Sveavägen/Götgatan axis goes back to the Early Modern era with connections from Stockholm to Roslag to the north and Götland in the south.

Not every street has this intercity or suburban history, but the important ones frequently do. The Manhattan grid was mapped as an entirely urban street network, but the wide north-south avenues were designed for easy access to the Lower Manhattan core from future residential areas. In ungridded cities, usually you can tell which streets are the oldest because they are longer, more continuous, and more commercially developed, and the exceptions come from heavyhanded state planning, like the shift from Rue Saint-Jacques to Boulevard Saint-Michel in Haussmannian Paris.

The importance of through-streets within cities continues even today, and even when cars are not too relevant. People who walk or take transit are likelier to do so on the main streets, and as a result, businesses prefer locating there. In Manhattan there’s even an expression for this: avenue rents versus street rents. In Vancouver, I could walk on any street, but crossing wasn’t any harder on the main streets than on the side streets, and there was more interesting stuff to look at on the main streets; even ignoring zoning, retail would prefer to locate on the main streets because that’s where all the other retail is. There’s a wealth of good restaurants I discovered just by walking next to them, to say nothing of the gaming store on 4th Avenue near MacDonald, which I saw from the bus to UBC.

All of this is magnified in cities that do not have consistent grids, like Paris, Berlin, and even Stockholm. In those cities, zoning does not micromanage use as much as in North America, and yet businesses locate on major streets where possible. Here is a map of the area I live in: the green dot is where I live, and the red dot is a government office I went to last week to register.

Walking east or west, I exclusively use Bernauer Strasse, the street the M10 tramway runs on; walking north or south, I use Brunnen Strasse, which hosts U8. Other streets can function as shortcuts, but with parks and small changes interrupting the grid, they’re less reliable for through-walking. And indeed, they are much quieter and largely residential, with retail mostly at street corners.

The invention of the stroad

The early American roads connected distinct cities, or linked cities with rural hinterlands. Within the cities, they fed preexisting arterial streets. For the most part these arterial streets were fairly wide – they were mapped in the 19th century based on 19th-century design standards, often 30 meters of width, rather than the narrow medieval streets London is famous for – but they still filled with cars fast. Two parking lanes and four moving lanes in a dense city with busy crossings aren’t much. American cities had traffic jams in the 1920s already.

My two go-to references about the history of American roadbuilding – Owen Gutfreund’s 20th-Century Sprawl, and Earl Swift’s The Big Roads – both explain what happened beginning in the 1920s: cities built bypasses. The idea was that the bypasses would segregate through-traffic from urban traffic, separating roads from streets properly.

This never happened. For the same reason preindustrial roads turned into busy streets, bypasses turned into busy auto-oriented streets. Retailers found that the best place to locate was where all the cars were. These bypasses became congested roads themselves, partly due to the induced auto-oriented development and partly due to general growth in car traffic volumes. This trend intensified after WW2, with the freeways leading another cycle of bypasses around congested urban roads becoming congested with urban traffic themselves. Wal-Mart and Carrefour invented the hypermarket in 1962-3, and in the 1960s office space began suburbanizing as well, since traffic conditions were better than in congested city centers.

This is not an obscure history, and Chuck is fully aware of it: among his complaints about stroads is that they reduce the tax base of the city by encouraging retail to decamp for the suburbs. He just fails to follow this through to the logical conclusion: the most intense demand for real estate is near the busiest through-routes. There is no real separation between the street and the road; the best you can do for walkability is run better public transit to the urban core and make sure the roads have street-facing retail rather than front parking lots.

Strails

The principle that the best place for local traffic is where long-distance traffic is is equally true of trains. An intermediate station on an intercity railway sited a convenient commute away from the city will soon fill with suburban travelers. The term commuter itself derives from the discounted commutation tickets American intercity railroads offered regular riders, starting in New York and Boston in the middle of the 19th century.

19th-century railways were not a complex system of branched lines dedicated to regional traffic. Such lines existed, for example the Ligne de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, now part of the RER A, but most of the lines continued onward to long-distance destinations, or had been built with the intention of continuing so. Look at this map of extant London-area railways by year of construction: there aren’t that many branches predating the Late Victorian era, and the branches that do exist tend to be reverse-branches in South London offering service to either a City station like Cannon Street or Blackfriars or a West End station like Victoria. The remainder are loop lines, built to offer four tracks’ worth of capacity on lines that had originally been built with only two, but then both routes filled with local traffic, making it harder to schedule express trains; for an example easily visible on the map, see the Lea Valley lines connecting to Cheshunt.

In contrast with the London loop lines, Prussian State Railways made sure to rebuild the Ringbahn and Stadtbahn to have adequate capacity, that is four tracks, two for local service and two for longer-distance service; the Ringbahn had initially been built with two tracks, but would be expanded to four in the 1880s and 90s. But even here, there are seams. German Wikipedia explains that the Stadtbahn had to take a less desirable route to avoid expensive takings on Leipziger Strasse, and has a winding route with S-curves between Alexanderplatz and Jannowitz Brücke. Moreover, some individual branches only have two tracks even if they are the best intercity routes: the S2 route is the most direct route to Dresden, but with two tracks, heavy local traffic, and only DC electrification, it cannot host intercity trains, and thus intercity trains to Dresden spend 20 minutes out of a 2-hour trip getting around this line.

Berlin at least has the good fortune that four tracks here are enough. Tokyo is so big and strongly-centered that it has ten tracks going south of Tokyo on the Tokaido Line and eight going north on the Tohoku Line, including four for local service, two for Shinkansen service, and two or four for medium-distance express regional trains. Widening railways to serve city centers is expensive, and only done when absolutely necessary, and yet JR East spent considerable money on widening the innermost Tohoku trunk from six to eight tracks.

Even high-speed rail can induce the same development effect as a freeway. It doesn’t have closely-spaced stations, but people might demand stations as a mitigation of construction impact and train noise. The Tohoku Shinkansen diverges from the Tohoku Main Line a few kilometers north of Tokyo, but the local communities demanded local service as well as a mitigation, and as a result Japan National Railways built a four-track line, with two Shinkansen tracks and two local tracks for the Saikyo Line.

Main streets want to be everything

Major streets are the best location for every destination and every mode of transportation. This extends beyond walking. Buses prefer wide streets optimized for higher traffic speed – and the few main streets that are not so optimized, such as the Manhattan crosstown streets (since traffic is optimized for north-south avenue throughput), have buses that win awards for how slow they are. Bicyclists prefer riding on major streets as well, which is why Copenhagen prioritizes bike infrastructure on major streets rather than on side streets – on side streets car traffic is so light and slow that mixed traffic is not so bad, but the desirable through-routes remain the major streets.

The problem is that every mode of transportation requires some piece of the street, whereas street width is finite. Brunnen Strasse is 40 meters wide, and hosts very wide sidewalks including a dedicated path for on-sidewalk cycling, a combination of parallel and angled parking, two moving lanes in each direction, and a generous road median. Even that width does not include dedicated public transit infrastructure: U8 runs underneath the street, leaving the street’s width for sidewalks and roadways.

The same situation occurs on railroads: all uses want the same piece of infrastructure, leading to the usual problems of mixing trains of different speed classes on the same tracks. Freight bypasses are possible, but passenger bypasses are rare – train passengers tend to want to go to the city rather than to some suburb, and unlike cars, trains have prescribed stop patterns. By rail as by road, bigger infrastructure is needed: four tracks for a mixed local and interregional railway, or about 36-40 meters or even more on a main street.

Wide enough streets don’t exist everywhere. New England streets are narrow. Midwestern streets are wider, but at least the one I’m most familiar with, Ann Arbor’s Washtenaw Avenue, is only around 25 meters wide – it only gets up to 40 if one includes setbacks. Road widening would be needed, which is exactly the opposite of what the Strong Towns approach prescribes. Cities this small could mix decent local and intercity rail service on two tracks with timed overtakes, but that would require them to run any passenger rail service to begin with, and to make sure to have enough development near the stations, both residential and commercial, that people would ride the trains.

But on a 30-meter wide street, something has to give. There simply is not enough room for everything. Give pedestrians their 4 or 5 meters of sidewalk in each direction, cyclists their 2 meters of bike lane, and cars their parking lane and two moving lanes, and you’re already at 30-32 meters. You can go with complete streets and reduce the extent of car infrastructure, for example by turning a moving lane per direction into a bus or tram lane, or by getting rid of street parking, but unless you’re in a city with high transit mode share, you’re driving away eyeballs from retailers. Paris can definitely do it, New York and Berlin can do it, even Boston can do it. Can a small American city where planners aspire to run a handful of buses every 15 minutes do it? Probably not.