Ridiculous Roads

After reading this biting accusation against TxDOT and how the design of today’s roads is like making us eat “every meal with a chainsaw,” my mind was taken back to some of the amazingly oversized roads I’ve come across since landing in Texas more than five years ago.

Take a look at this subdivision called Trails of Oak Ridge, located on the outskirts of Waco, Texas:

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At the time of this aerial photo fewer than 30 homes have been built, and it seems designed for maybe another 30 or so houses.  How wide would you expect a street inside the Trails of Oak Ridge to be?  Probably not this wide:

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According to my measurements using Google Maps, that’s about 80 feet of paving, curb-to-curb.  That’s wide enough for 18-wheelers and fire trucks to do donuts in front of your house.  Imagine the possibilities.  To put that into perspective, nearby Hewitt Drive—a 4-lane arterial road with a center turn lane—has 80 feet of paving, including shoulders.  Heck, five freeway lanes and two shoulders could fit in 80 feet!  Yet, we’re building roads like this to serve the residents of 60 homes?  Just notice all the cracks in the road that have been patched since the road was built about five years ago.

Further down the road, at the Shavano Ridge subdivision in Northwest San Antonio, you’ll see much of the same.  Here’s the street view on Rogers Parkway:

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Paving here is more slender, at about 40 feet; but, when you consider that parking along this road is against HOA rules, and is grounds for having your car towed, even 40 feet seems excessive.  You could almost fit four lanes of traffic along this road—not that you’d ever need to.  There are about 360 homes in this neighborhood, and about a third of those residents would likely never use this road.

In contrast, places like Pressler Street in Austin (25 feet paved), Suffolk Avenue in College Station (25 feet paved), and Normandy Avenue in Alamo Heights (28 feet paved) all manage to survive in some of those Texas cities’ most desirable neighborhoods.  And if you venture to older U.S. cities like Boston, Providence, Charleston, Chicago, or Washington, many of their residential streets are just as narrow. 

Of course there’s always the other extreme: the narrowest named street in the world—in England—is 25 inches wide.  Try pushing your Ford Excursion down that one.  Or even just the driver’s seat.

The point is not merely to point out the ridiculous waste of space these streets take, though that is part of it.  Rather, many a planning department actually requires that developers build these behemoths in the name of safety, and at what cost? Added maintenance expenses? Excessive impervious surfaces leading to more flash flooding? Residential roads designed so that cars will drive 40 miles per hour?

It’s time to push back against this excess, not only in the name of safety and environmental stewardship, but for saving the concept of place.  I mean, do any of those photos above look like a place you want to linger?  I doubt it.  Rethinking road design as a means of creating character and identity will not only make neighborhoods like Trails at Oak Ridge and Shavano Ridge more appealing, they also slow traffic making them safer for children and anyone else on the street.

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