One of Salt Lake City’s “saner” downtown streets with one travel lane each direction and left-turn lanes where needed. There’s one light rail lane in each direction. A bicycle priority lane is marked in the two travel lanes.
Possible extended title: They have so many persistent disadvantages even after several (but weak) mitigation attempts
Preface: Utah law says that people driving automobiles must yield for pedestrians in or approaching crosswalk (stop if in a school zone and the school zone light is flashing). Drivers and bicyclists in Illinois must stop to let people cross the street, in a marked or unmarked crosswalk.
If you read my last “Dispatches from Utah” post you remember that I took a ride on the inaugural Frontrunner South train from Salt Lake City to Provo, Utah. Then my laptop died and things got hairy. I’ve been back in Chicago for over a week now. Riding the trains, both light rail and the commuter rail, was one of the transportation highlights of my trip. The second was walking a couple of miles from one TRAX light rail station to my family’s home. This walking experienced was then followed by a driving trip to meet my cousin at a “local” Thai restaurant. (When your city is as spread out like Salt Lake City, and less dense than Chicago, your definition of “local” is expanded.)
I drove for 20 minutes to meet him. I drove down Salt Lake City’s State Street for a majority of the way. It’s 102 feet wide, with 3 lanes in each direction, a center turn lane, parallel parking on both sides, and sidewalks. There are no bikeways. Many of the city’s and region’s streets are like this. I had an immediate problem: I was driving southbound but the restaurant was on the northbound side of the street. Under no circumstances did I feel safe slowing down and turning left across 3+1 northbound lanes into the restaurant’s parking lot – I didn’t even know if this was legal. I couldn’t even see the addresses of the buildings on the opposite side of the street. After passing the approximate address, I turned left at a signalized intersection and then did a full roundabout drive through a neighborhood for 3-5 minutes before coming back to State Street, now driving on the same side of the street as the restaurant.
I wish I could relate this street to one in Chicago but I don’t know of the best example. Stony Island Avenue comes quite close: just south of 71st Street, the southbound and northbound lanes are each 58 feet wide (116 feet total), separated by a 52 feet wide landscaped median.
The differences are these: the block lengths are longer (660 feet between 71st and 72nd Streets in Chicago, and 760 feet between 100 S and 200 S in Salt Lake City), the intersection signals are timed on State Street to minimize number of stops a driver has to make (driving at 7 PM, I stopped at one or two traffic signals while driving 4.5 miles on State Street), and there are unsignalized mid-block pedestrian crossings. Additionally, the greater-than-100-feet-wide Stony Island Avenue breaks up a pedestrian crossing into two 58-feet long parts. Salt Lake City’s State Street has a speed limit of 35 MPH and a “design limit” (the speed at which a large portion of drivers would feel comfortable driving because of the design characteristics of that roadway) closer to 45 MPH or greater.
I’m getting to the point of this long setup. However, before you continue, you might be interested in reading a concise history, albeit on a very biased website trying to sell real estate, on why the blocks were designed to be so large over 100 years ago when Mormon pioneers settled the Salt Lake Valley.
View this mid-block, unsignalized crosswalk in a larger map. I can’t photograph the street while driving.
Would you cross at one of these mid-block, unsignalized crosswalks?
I wouldn’t. And I probably wouldn’t stop for a pedestrian trying to cross here. I say this after considering the pedestrian’s safety, and my own, behind the steering wheel of a good quality car.
Since there are 8 lanes of traffic, all would have to stop for this pedestrian. I don’t think this is likely to happen. If one driver were to stop, 7 others (and countless more behind them) also must stop. Drivers are doubtfully expecting someone to stop, in any lane, least likely the inner lanes, at a place that’s not an intersection. I don’t want to be rear-ended.
Let’s say the pedestrian starts crossing. Only the first two lanes are occupied and the first drivers in these lanes have stopped. A driver behind will not know why the drivers ahead of them have stopped and may change lanes, and accelerate from their deceleration phase. The pedestrian’s view of the other lanes are obscured and this third driver’s view of the crosswalk (to the left) and the pedestrian who has started crossing is also obscured. To top off this precarious situation, there is no refuge island.
It might be that some people recognize this and never cross except at signalized crosswalks. So maybe this isn’t an issue. But they’re there. It’s disingenuous for them to be here, inviting people to cross and perhaps offering to some that it’s safe to do so. To top it off there are orange flags people can carry with them for “extra safety”.
Every time I visit a city with wide roads, I miss the comfort and closeness, and relative traffic safety, that a narrower street provides. Chicago is this place for me. Well, it’s actually a collection of cities I’ve visited but Chicago is where I spend the most time. To further understand how foreign the street network in Salt Lake City is, here’s something unique: a 900-feet long left-turn lane. If you’re a city manager of a place with a traffic demand that merits a left-turn lane to hold 50 cars, there are probably other things you should be doing to mange people’s travel and transportation needs.
It’s at this point that I’d like to introduce you two concepts of road and street design. The first is the “stroad”, developed by Chuck Marohn, executive director of Strong Towns (based in Minnesota).
…a road is an efficient connection between two places. It is high speed and safe, which implies that it has limited access (intersections are inherently unsafe at high speeds) and highway geometries. It is essentially a replacement for the railroad which was, as its name suggests, a road on rails.
In contrast, streets create a platform for capturing value. A properly designed street will maximize the value of the adjacent development pattern in ratio to the infrastructure investment within the public realm. To do this, auto traffic will be slow and will (equally) share space with other modes of transport, including pedestrians, bikers and transit alternatives.
[It is the] “futon of transportation alternatives”. Where a futon is an uncomfortable couch that also serves as an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD is an auto corridor that does not move cars efficiently while simultaneously providing little in the way of value capture.
I believe State Street in Salt Lake City is a stroad. The second concept is narrow streets, and really narrow streets. I live on a narrow street, Fletcher Avenue in Avondale. They can be narrower. The benefits of narrow streets are best summarized by their greatest proponent, Nathan Lewis:
Narrow streets = things are close together = easy to walk = hard to park = hard to drive = no wasted space = a city full of “stuff” rather than “non-stuff” like parking lots, superwide roadways and throwaway greenery = architecture that is to be appreciated by a close-up pedestrian rather than from a helicopter or an interstate highway = lots of fun.
This definition is somewhat codified by the Pedestrian Street designation in the City of Chicago’s zoning code. The designation disallows auto-centric uses like driveways, parking lots, drive and throughs; it requires zero setback from the sidewalk-property line. It’s designed to perpetuate or develop a street that’s good for walking, or “walkable”.
A narrow street in Chicago, Menomonee Street in Lincoln Park.
I recommend the following reading about stroads and narrow streets:
- Narrow streets are the safest – “analysis illustrates that as street width widens, accidents per mile per year increases exponentially”; the safest street width is 24 feet, curb to curb
- Stroad to Boulevard
- Examples of narrow street life in North America
- Examples of narrow street life around the world
You can find narrow streets in Chicago:
- Menomonee Street in Lincoln Park (satellite map)
- Plymouth Court (map), Financial Place (map), and Federal Street (map) in South Loop
Elmegade (-gade meaning Street) in the Nørrebro (-bro meaning neighborhood) of Copenhagen, Denmark. The street has one-way car traffic and two-way bike traffic. “Sidewalk cafés” are in the street, not on the sidewalk, between the solid white stripe and what passes for a curb. View this place in Google Street View. The speed limit sign says 40 km/h, or 24 MPH. It might be lowered to 30 km/h, or 18 MPH by now.