What comes to mind when you hear news of a pending transportation project that will run into the hundreds of millions or even billions? Invariably it is a freeway or urban rail project. It’s a celebrity culture, and freeways are the celebrities of our auto-worshiping culture. If freeways have issues, everyone knows it and everyone’s ready to spend whatever it takes – especially on celebrity-worthy alternatives like glitzy rail. If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with “morbidly obese” freeways like that above, or more double-deckers.

In the meantime, your region may have hundreds of ugly stroads that in aggregate are a lot more troublesome than the next freeway bottleneck. Some stroads are excessively congested. Others were once super-sized because they were popular, but have since become blighted and under-utilized. Virtually all are heavily auto-oriented, and dangerously high-speed for the level of on/off/across multi-modal activity involved.

If they could be reinvented as mixed-use livable boulevards with place-making intersections, then the reduced congestion per dollar spent would be more impressive than similar dollars spent on freeway and rail projects. And more than just congestion, we’d also be setting the stage for safer, more beautiful streets that accommodate all users much better. And these streets could then attract new growth, making it more possible to get by with #NoNewStreets.

Communities would love to create great streets, but they bump up against harsh realities – they haven’t budgeted even for potholes, let alone amenities that make up a walkable Complete Street. So they require developers to plant a few rinky-dink trees, half of which will be dead in a year.

Freeways Get The Attention; Stroads Deserve More Attention

Why do freeways get all the attention? Here are three reasons…

  1. Freeways are everyone’s problem: Stroads are just too local. Even if everyone in the state as an ugly, congested stroad problem, the state itself does not have your stroad problem. When there are problems with freeways, everyone cares.
  2. With freeways, the solution is “obvious”: Anyone can arm-chair quarterback the most common freeway problem. “It’s congested, so make it bigger!” Few appreciate the subtle consequences of freeway expansion, such as resultant induced demand, sprawl, white-knuckling through high-speed spaghetti, and sucking the funding opportunities away from other needs. The solutions for troubled stroads are purplexing to everyone. Commerce is dying! But how do you fix that? Or maybe there’s too much congestion, but widening would have hundreds of serious impacts. How do you fix that?
  3. States fund mega-projects: Even if the state owns your stroad, there is no statewide excitement to fund localized improvements for congestion relief, bikeways, transit, and premium streetscape in someone else’s city. But there may be excitement for a huge bundle of projects designed to reinvigorate languishing communities!

To Rally Attention to Stroads, Redefine the Mega-Project

We need to redefine “the billion-dollar project.” A 10-mile freeway bottleneck gets funded because 200,000 drivers per day depend on it. For the same billion, you might bundle dozens of Complete Street projects, benefiting even more people every day with stronger, more vibrant communities along with less congestion. So stop settling for piecemeal arterial funding with minuscule budgets for bikes, transit, and pedestrians, and instead rally stakeholders and legislators around a “billion-dollar investment” in arterial streets as a single project, like they’re already used to doing with freeways. If such a project were defined in detail using this Shared Solution toolbox, it would be easy to demonstrate greater effectiveness on congestion and 7-D land uses than similarly expensive freeway and rail projects.


Addressing Critics

Many will look at the above picture and say, “all you’ve done is prettied things up and done nothing for congestion relief! It’s even worse because I could turn left before and now there’s a tree in the left-turn lane. At least the freeway project can help me get home for dinner!”

That’s the point of the toolbox. The Place-Making Intersections like the Quadrant and the Bowtie (Thru-Turn) are both able to reduce congestion by relocating lefts to where they’re easier to manage. And to those who would critique that the off-freeway network is now great, but the freeway itself remains a problem, review our suggestions for Managed Motorways, which can get freeways flowing again without needing to expand them again.

In Summary

Stroads are everyone’s problem, yet nobody’s problem. If we elevate visibility by packaging dozens of stroad overhauls together in a single project on-par with a freeway project, there is a better chance of getting state funding because everyone will get something at the same time. When the “project” concept varies so radically, you can still compare apples to apples when the money is similar. Not only will this strategy prove more effective at reducing congestion, but there will be gains in alternative modes, a thriving economy, and improved safety that blowing another billion on a freeway just can’t match.


Mike is president of Metro Analytics and frequent author at Strong Towns. Strengths include Travel Demand Forecasting, Data Visualization, Place-Making Intersections, and Big Picture multi-modal solutions.

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