How to Destroy a Small Town: Build More Stroads

Suck the soul out of your community and destroy its vitality: Build more stroads.

Want to suck the soul out of your community and destroy its vitality? Build more stroads. Photo credit: Strong Towns.

I have a meeting tomorrow with Augie Wallmeyer, author of “The Extremes of Virginia,” a book that highlights the perilous social and economic condition of rural/small town Virginia. In anticipation of the conversation, I have been reflecting upon what it takes to stabilize rural counties whose economies have been devastated by the decline of coal, tobacco, furniture, textiles and apparel. With all the challenges they face, which Wallmeyer has described in copious detail, can these hard-hit communities reinvent themselves for the 21st century?

There are at least two parts to this question. One, which tends to get the most attention, is economic development: how to stimulate jobs and investment. A second, which gets overlooked here in Virginia, is how to maintain essential government services in a jurisdiction with an eroding population and fragile economy. The latter task is as essential as the former. If counties and small cities can’t maintain basic services, how can they hope to compete for people and jobs?

In the course of these ruminations, I encountered a recent blog post by Charles Marohn, founder of the Strong Towns movement: “America’s Next Transportation System: Doing More While Spending Less.” This short essay reminds me that every supervisor, council person, city or county manager, and planning director in a rural Virginia jurisdiction needs to read Strong Towns regularly — or be fired!

This particular piece discusses basic principles of transportation policy — principles that are routinely ignored throughout most of Virginia, and in rural Virginia most of all, where politicians and civic boosters regard new roads and highways mainly as tools for economic development. The entire post is worth reading, but I want to focus on some points most pertinent to rural planning.

Marohn distinguishes between roads and streets. “Roads are for getting to a place,” he writes. “Streets are for being in a place.”

Roads and highways are connectors; they provide high-speed links between productive places. They enable trade and commerce. Travel speed and throughput are relevant metrics. But we ruin our roads by gumming them up with development, intersections, curb cuts, stop lights and many other hindrances to unimpeded travel. For classic examples of how to ruin a road, look to U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville, the Broad Street and Midlothian Turnpike corridors in Richmond, Route 1 in Fredericksburg, and any transportation corridor in Northern Virginia. Smaller-scale but no less grotesque examples can be seen outside of almost every small city or town in Virginia. Communities have choked off their access to the world through their failure to understand the function of a road.

Streets are what you find at the end of the road. They provide local access — not just for cars but for pedestrians and bicycles. They do not create economic value by allowing faster speeds. Indeed, speed kills economic value on streets by making people feel less safe. The function of streets is to create places where people interact. Streets that work well are marked by short, gridded blocks, slower speeds, fewer stoplights, wider sidewalks, buildings abutting the sidewalk, and a vibrant street life.

“The productivity of a street is improved by slowing traffic, by giving priority to walking, biking and transit over automobiles and by intensifying the adjacent land use,” Marohn writes. As he elaborates in other blog posts, more intensive development (two-, three-, four-story buildings in small towns) generates more property tax revenue per acre for a comparable investment in infrastructure. This insight is absolutely critical for any town intent upon preserving and building its tax base.

Marohn coined the term “stroads” for street-road hybrids that combine the worst attributes of streets and roads —  “a transportation investment that attempts to simultaneously provide a high-speed connection while also attempting to build wealth.” Writes Marohn:

These outcomes are incompatible. Stroads are the highest cost, lowest returning of all transportation investments. They are also the most dangerous. We must stop building stroads and actively seek to convert existing stroads into either high-performance roads or wealth producing streets.

The path to economic salvation for rural Virginia lies (1) in building better transportation connections between towns and cities, and (2) in designing wealth-creating places where people want to live and work. Instead, most rural Virginia communities are still building stroads and destroying what vitality they have.

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15 responses to “How to Destroy a Small Town: Build More Stroads

  1. re: ” “The productivity of a street is improved by slowing traffic, by giving priority to walking, biking and transit over automobiles and by intensifying the adjacent land use,” Marohn writes. As he elaborates elsewhere, more intensive development (two-, three-, four-story buildings in small towns) generates more property tax revenue per acre for a comparable investment in infrastructure. This insight is absolutely critical for any town intent upon preserving and building its tax base.”

    so once again – on the settlement pattern side of the coin – we see the advocacy for transit.

    then at other times in BR – we see Transit taken to task for being a subsidized and wasteful service..that HARMS communities.

    So once again – I will ask – say for this blog post. Has BR ever really defined , given the stated importance of transit to good settlement patterns, the characteristics of “good” transit – such that we know the difference between “good” transit and “bad” transit.

    what are those characteristics?

    Is there a cost aspect? If transit loses money on every passenger, is that “bad” or “good” transit? if they have a backlog of needed maintenance or operational deficits.. is THAT a “bad” transit.

    Of the cities and towns in the country that are said to do settlement patterns “right” is there a list of “good” transit systems – models to emulate?

    inquiring minds would like to KNOW!!!

    • Larry,

      The focus of this particular post is on the fiscal consequences of how we think about road building, but the quoted author, Chuck Marohn, is a strong proponent of being fiscally responsible for ALL infrastructure. You will find that his is no fan of building transit based on wishful thinking. strongtowns dot org

      There certainly is data available on successful and unsuccessful transit systems in the US – an internet search will give you lots of lists. However, I would say that in general, transit success is context-specific and more nuanced than looking at an overall system. Successful transit will be (1) of a type that is appropriate for the market, (2) be well-designed and (3) be supported by surrounding housing at a sufficient density – something that is specific to a particular corridor.

      On the question of cost, there are few transit systems that are funded entirely by fare revenue. If that is your measure of whether a system “loses money,” then most systems do. However, by the same measure, ALL public transportation infrastructure loses money. The roads you drive on are not paid for by “fare revenue.” On the other hand, if you measure how a particular system generates wealth as compared to cost (ROI), then you can have a meaningful conversation about relative value. Don’t get me wrong, I am not just talking about roads versus transit – I am talking about transit versus transit, as well.

      Andrew

    • I think what is missing is the realization that many roads/streets serve multiple purposes. Many roads serve both a local community (big or small) and also through traffic. One can see that in smaller towns and in big urban-suburban areas.

      In rural areas, a number of communities are served by both the “business route” and the “bypass route.” It can work to allow the business route to be slowed and serve local residents and businesses, while allowing through traffic to avoid slowing down. The problem comes when development is allowed off the bypass route, unless it is largely grade separated at interchanges instead of intersections.

      Fairfax County wrestled with Routes 7 and 123 in Tysons. VDOT estimates both routes carry 235-37% through traffic that is not starting or ending at Tysons. The first attempt was pure foolishness. The developer-dominated Task Force proposed to treat these roads as streets, narrowing them by allowing on-street parking. VDOT’s objections and common sense views by the County and other stakeholders eliminated this. Both 7 & 123 have been and will be widened. There is also pretty strong sentiment that neither road is safe for bikes and pedestrians. Imagine trying to cross the Beltway exit ramp to 123!!!!

      VDOT is studying converting much of 123 to a series of “superstreets” that prohibit left turns from side streets onto 123, but uses, instead, right turns and U-turns. The goal is to improve traffic flow and handle through traffic more efficiently.

      The combination street-road is real and must be addressed differently than simple streets or roads, IMO.

  2. Andrew – that was a pretty good response and a good starting point to further flesh out the role (or non role) of transit in Functional settlement patterns.

    Are you of the view that transit is optional for well-functioning settlement patterns and/or it is on a case-by-case basis?

    Is subway transit not an option .. and only wheeled-transit?

    If transit is a money-loser. then what are the things we’d use to value it from an ROI-perspective?

    got more questions but stop here .. and also hope Bacon weighs in.

    • Larry – good questions.

      First off, my definition of a “well-functioning settlement pattern” is one that is designed around “walkability”, the baseline form of human transportation, and one that does not necessitate automobile ownership. Owning and operating a car should be a choice, ideally. (I am going to lay aside the question of rural communities for the moment and focus on urban and suburban areas. Obviously, if you live in a rural area, you are going to need a car and I am NOT going to argue that nobody should live in rural areas.) Also, there is a continuum here; most communities have some degree of walkability.

      I do not think that public transit is mandatory for a walkable community. However, I do think that there is a strong correlation between walkable communities and the viability of transit, if the community is large enough to support it financially. The basic component of residential density is usually in place. However, if transit cannot be supported in a financially responsible way, either at present or with a reasonable projection of growth, then it should be questioned.

      I am not sure I understand your question about subways versus wheeled transit. I do think that the transit type should be tailored to a particular application – it is not “one size fits all.” Help me understand your question and I’ll take another pass at it.

      On the ROI question, one of the measurable potential benefits is increase in property values in the contributing corridor and consequently, increase in owner wealth and tax revenue for local government (a direct ROI). Another measurable potential benefit is the increased utilization of land that was formerly dedicated to cars, both in travel lanes and parking (assuming that the transit use displaces car use.) Another is the consequential growth in housing, retail and jobs that result from the introduction of transit. Think Rosslyn/Balston corridor in Arlington. Basically, transit should be an engine for wealth creation and its success or failure measured against that.

      Good conversation – keep the questions coming.

      Andrew

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  4. This post digs into fertile ground key to Virginia’s future.

    The upcoming book, “The Extremes of Virginia,” And Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns movement and all its good works, like the essay“America’s Next Transportation System: Doing More While Spending Less.” I hope we can read and learn a whole lot about this book and this movement abroad to revitalize and rebuild strong towns in future Bacon’s Rebellion posts and commentary.

    Regarding Rural Virginia:

    Where today great darkness lies, it most always augurs great dawns. There is nothing preordained above darkness in this world, except in cases of peoples who lose their nerve and will. We all are born with the unique capacity to transform darkness into light. The question is not about our chances of success but how long that success of ours thrives before we ruin it.

    Today all our capacities for good and evil are magnified. We can shrink distance. We can thrive everywhere. We can ruin everything.

    This reality speaks to our past magnificent achievements against great adversity, as well as our past sins and great shame, and greater opportunity.

    So for example –

    As of today, Northern Virginia by and large has ruined itself. Its appointed leaders, confronted with today’s great challenge, have run away. They have abandoned the field. They hide.

    Instead of confronting problems honestly, forthrightly, and taking action to solve them, today’s elected leaders, in dereliction of their duty, appoint “Blue Ribbon Panels” to hide behind while delegated to do their dirty work.

    The results are thus per-ordained. A few Unelected powerful business interests look after their own interest at the expense of millions of other people who live in and pass through Northern Virginia every day. As a result the final hangman’s noose now is strangling Northern Virginia strangles itself to death. It will leave a corpse for others to bury before these burial parties will start Northern Virginia all over again as surely they will. The graveyard is far too close to the Nation’s Capital to ignore.

    Meanwhile, where will the survivors of Northern Virginia’s collapse go as they empty out the dysfunctional place that reeks such harm on its citizens.

    Herein lies the opportunity for rural Virginia.

    In rural Virginia’s small towns and their surrounds, many of these refugees of dying Northern Virginia can rebuilt on some of God’s most gifted lands and places, the Virginia countryside from the Chesapeake to the Shenandoah Valley where people can thrive amid happiness, health and opportunity? Its a land of opportunity that beckons like it has for past generations over hundreds of years for people with a strong will, inbuilt grit, and independent determined spirit to make something of themselves beyond victims.

    Today’s WSJ journal speaks to the tiny gulf states. Their quest to become places of opportunity like never before in history. Isolated Desert before, or at best one act ponies for those with oil underground, now with new technologies like 3-D printing, societies that were little more nomadic camel herders through the 1950, are finding ways to grab an incredible future.

    Surely rural Virginia people can do the same.

    • Reed,

      Very well said. With today’s fiber optic gigabit speed, work can be done from many locations. The manufacturing that will need humans will be relatively small batch, highly customized production that also can be done from many locations.

      If we also include measures other than purely financial ones in our definition of wealth, small towns in Virginia can flourish. Wealth should include health and vitality, a sense of belonging in a community, and the ease of doing daily tasks without the stress and delays of heavy traffic, among other things.

      We should also imagine what our needs for intercity “road” travel will be when our more densely populated zones are filled with walking, biking, specialty electric vehicles and transportion-as-a-service options. Rather than be stuffed with cars moving one passenger, our roads might be moderately full of jitneys, buses, light rail, etc. that serve as connectors between the populated zones.

  5. @Andrew – wheeled verses rail..

    are there more dense settlement patterns that REQUIRE subways to function,
    i.e bus service alone cannot handle? think New York , Chicago scale density

    I’m think

  6. Perhaps another worthy question – what should Transit COST?

    Is there some standard that would help localities understand if they should spend more on transit or perhaps they’re already spending too much?

    In terms of roads and strodes… here’s a challenge.

    why were roads beyond city built? They weren’t built to allow folks to visit with each other.. right? so what motivated building a road between two cities?

  7. Larry,

    Here in the Shenandoah Valley, the roads were built between the villages that sprang up about one day’s travel apart (20 miles give or take). The main settlement road bringing families from southern Pennsylvania followed the original Indian path through the Valley that allowed multiple tribes access to the bountiful hunting grounds. Route 11 follows nearly that same path. Since the best topographic alignment was already taken, I-81 is a bit off to the side.

    The basic purpose was transit and trade, pretty much the same function as today.

    • The Shenandoah Valley, and its settlement, is provocative indeed, how it added complexity and speed to development of settlement patterns in Virginia in the first half of the 1700s.

      It is not accident that Leesburg on the northwest and the Blue Ridge mounts just west of Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forrest, mark the high water marks of the westward dominance the original Elizabethan Cavalier’s settlements on Virginia soil, all this despite the 1649 Fairfax Grant.

      And, far less widely known, is the initial claim of the Virginia Cavaliers to a Virginia Eastern Shore north to Kent Island where today Maryland’s Bay Bridge touches down its eastern end. There by 1660 the Cavalier tide lead by William Claiborne and his Welsh Marcher Lord sidekick Nicholas Martin (hence Md. Wye River) had receded to Pokomoke Sound by 1660.

      This resolution came after decades of sound and fury – trade wars, sea and land battles, political intrigue and see-saws of alliances on both sides of the Potomac, the Chesapeake, and Atlantic Ocean, driven by Cavalier obsession with mercantile water trade profits as obstructed by endless Popish plots.

      But, even after 166o, with the Calvert’s in Maryland’s driver seat, and the Quaker William Penn firmly seated in the Pennsylvania Providence, the roundabout way to settle the Promise Land of the Shenandoah, much of it within the Fairfax Grant, was not possible until well after the turn into the 1700s.

      When alien German refugees of Europe’s religious wars and the Pennsylvania Quakers and their ilk , followed closely by the always troublesome Scots and Irish, began their trickle in, it soon flooded down from up north across the Potomac. Yet, only in 1733 did Waterford’s settlement by Quakers just west of Leesburg sealed off the Cavaliers settlement wise. And thus was created an invisible line of division that would be cauterized by Civil war blood another 130 years later, all with great consequence yet another 100 years later, beginning about 1960. So by then 300 years had passed since the end of Virginia’s wars with Maryland along the Chesapeake, and 356 years since Jamestown.

      Settlement moved slow back then, first up rivers and creeks, then measured by the slow expansion of crossroads of cart roads across tidelands and finally out of the Tidelands and then slowly up into the Piedmont walled in by the Potomac gorge till stopped by the settlement of Waterford up north and the Blue Ridge that stretched from there to the south walling off the Shenandoah until the alien immigrants some 120 years after Jamestown came down from the lands north across the Potomac in Pennsylvania and western Maryland.

      In some ways, this invisible lines stands strong today, sealing out even now the crony capitalist barbarians kin of former Virginia Gentlemen. Now the next chapter of change is likely at hand , telescoped likely into decades. How will the world turn this go round?

  8. so if a road was built for trade… it was a a kind of a “strode” if it was going to be used for trade and not just transit?

    I look at the history of roads in Virginia – that started in Jamestown and Williamsburg.

    People who left those places to settle west had no roads.. just trails..
    and trails would suffice if the only purpose was for folks heading west to re-settle…

    settlers would take with them all the things they needed to re-settle.

    who would come along later and convert the trails to roads ? who did the work and how were they paid? Did you know the Church had a role?

    I’m glad you asked!

    A HISTORY OF ROADS IN VIRGINIA “THE MOST CONVENIENT WAYES”

    http://www.virginiadot.org/about/resources/historyofrds.pdf

  9. These comments are all fascinating.
    The reality for small and rural jurisdictions is that they are dependent on VDOT–the state agency whose motto is “oops!” for road construction and maintenance.
    Road dollars are grudgingly shared with areas outside of NOVA and Tidewater. Local governments must play a cumbersome game of “mother may I?” to get anything, including installation of traffic signals at dangerous intersections, done.

    The secondary six year plan strategy lets localities prioritize VDOT funds allocated to them, setting aside dollars each year until enough accumulates to pay for the project. Costs escalate as years pass, projects get scaled back.

    VDOT reform is badly needed, but no one is willing to touch that third rail. And the beat goes on.

  10. not really agree. To a large extent – VDOT returns local dollars in rough proportion to what is contributed.

    It really is up to each locality to decide what their transportation priorities really are .. and it’s a fairly easy way these days to figure out how much they actually generate in local gas taxes.. if they really want to make sure they’re getting their fair share back.

    Many rural localities just don’t have that much economic activity which translates into a lot of people engaged in driving and buying gasoline – and paying gas taxes.

    Many of these localities actually are being subsidized by VDOT and Va taxpayers..

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