Dispatches from Utah: Why wide streets are unpleasant


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.

This exact situation was the discussion of an article on Bike Portland a week ago.

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 “stroad” is a street/road hybrid:

…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:

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.

35 thoughts on “Dispatches from Utah: Why wide streets are unpleasant”

      1. They still do. Each orange flag bin is monitored by a person or organization. I guess they call up someone in the city and ask for a refill. My mother, who lives in a quite walkable neighborhood, albeit in the foothills with steep inclines, told me that many had been refilled before I arrived.

      1. Right – if one driver stops, the pedestrian has to depend on the other 6 drivers to know why the first person is stopping. Then there are all the drivers behind those seven.

    1. They do. I watched a mother and her two kids grab them. It was odd, though because, if I remember correctly, the crosswalk was signalized but you could cross without a signal. It’s a crosswalk that’s in the background of the photo at the top, crossing the light rail tracks between the Grand America and Little America hotels.

  1. I find SLC not nearly as hostile as Chicago; Chicago drivers are some of the most hostile drivers anywhere. Also, the reason SLC streets are so wide is that the requirement to turn a cart pulled by 10 oxen is the reason the streets are so wide.

    1. I read that in the Wikipedia page, and someone else told me this, but I couldn’t find a quality reference before posting this article.

      Since that hasn’t been a necessity for decades, it should be okay to start reclaiming the streets.

      I agree with you that Chicago drivers (and other roadway users) are some of the most hostile drivers anywhere. Regardless of the level of hostility, though, the wide streets prevent even nice drivers from doing the right things (stopping for a pedestrian in the crosswalk) because there are so many other factors that make the crossing unsafe: the many drivers that must stop, and the drivers behind them.

  2. Parts of Northern Virginia have road set-ups like the one you describe here (they also have lengthy opposite direction frontage roads between the main road and the businesses–it’s horrible) and they always filled me with anxiety, but I never figured out why. Your description of the problems with them explain it, finally!

  3. When your city is as spread out like Salt Lake City, and less dense than Chicago, your definition of “local” is expanded.

    I had a similar perspective while living in south central New Hampshire. Many people considered anything within 30-40 miles “local” (depending on the density of areas along the way). Some cities and towns have stroads similar to what you describe, typically lined with with a mix of older businesses and strip malls, similar to what you might see in a Chicago exurb like Crystal Lake. Ped friendliness varied considerably by town.

    When I lived there, Concord was well known for police enforcement of its crosswalks and its ped friendly downtown, while cars ruled Manchester and stoplight cycles (even in the middle of downtown on a weekday) were biased against peds. Smaller towns with more human-scaled streets tended to be more ped friendly.

    I hope that more municipalities will come around to the wisdom of ped friendly improvements, before everything becomes a giant mass of superwide streets and strip malls. *cringe*

      1. It’s all relative. That’s the point. Here in Chicago, I consider a trip of less than an hour “local” and less than half an hour “close to home.”

        When I lived in walkable Concord, NH, I could walk to plenty of places within 15 minutes, but anything beyond that was much more spread out. Manchester was similar, albeit less ped friendly. Derry (low density commuter suburb to southern NH/northern MA) had a small business district within walking distance, but anything else required a lot more driving. Boston and Portland were within day trip distance.

        1. In an hour, sometimes less, I could drive from Chicago to my hometown Batavia, about 40 miles. In the same hour, I can only bike ~8-10 miles. So transportation mode and the intensity of urban characteristics are other factors in travel time, which is a major factor of what’s local.

      2. What’s really funny about where my family lives in Salt Lake City is that “walking quality” has a different factor than Chicago: inclines. There are some steep inclines in the Avenues neighborhood. It took me over 10 minutes to walk 0.4 miles from my family’s house to the library, because it was uphill. This has an impact on walking and biking in the neighborhood, which has 100% sidewalk coverage, bike lanes on some of the “cross streets” (perpendicular to the incline), and curb ramps at every intersection.

      1. That was true when I was in college in Dayton, Ohio, in the late 1980s and early ’90s. However, I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “neat” to describe a downtown that was about two-thirds vacant and looked like it was under occupation by flying saucers.

  4. Two things:

    1. While I’ll admit to a certain fascination with the planning and design of cities (I took a couple of classes), the invented jargon would drive me nuts. Stroad? I really don’t like that.

    2. Your experience in Salt Lake City illustrates why I often am against many of the supposed “upgrades” to Chicago transportation. I grew up in a place like Salt Lake City. I feel the dynamic you describe reflects what’s seen in most of the country. Chicago started out so far ahead of the curve on these issues that moving here was like jumping into another world. I’m well-used to making a left turn across three lanes of traffic. I was far less used to car traffic congestion and narrow streets keeping cars from buzzing me at 60 mph while I biked, or for there being even a tiny portion of the road open to biking. It already seemed like a bicyclist’s paradise to me. A lot of times, I feel the improvements are just gumming up a good thing, because I know all too well how bad things can be.

    Note: Tone doesn’t always come through on the internet. That first point is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

    1. “Stroad” might not be the best word, but the definition and futon metaphor is very poignant and relevant to this discussion. I think I understand your tone.

      “Stroads” are being created in Chicago. Take the Damen/Elston/Fullerton project. Wide road, no bike lanes (originally), wide turning radii.

      Also look at the new Wells Street, Franklin Boulevard, and Harrison Street configurations in proximity to the just-opened Wacker Drive/Congress Parkway interchange. Thank you, IDOT, for expanding Harrison Street from 4 lanes to 6 lanes, adding in highway interchange-style pedestrian crosswalks (where they must ask for permission, cross a wide road, then ask for permission again to cross another wide road while waiting in this little island that can only hold one person at a time). Yeah, more on this later…

      1. I’m so glad you have noticed the horrible new configuration at Wells/Franklin/Harrison. I cross this intersection at least twice a day on foot or by bike and am very displeased with the changes. Very much looking forward to your “more on this later,” Steven.

  5. Couple of things….

    1) of course its legal to turn left, thats the entire purpose of the center turn lane….

    2) I really hate this paragraph

    “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”.”

    It falls into the extremely dangerous logic used by engineers around the country that crosswalks shouldnt be marked because they create a “false sense of security”.

    No, they help note that the law means pedestrians can cross there. It’s not inviting anyone to cross any more than any intersection anywhere. Erasing the crosswalk wouldnt change the legality of crossing there, it would just make it more dangerous.

    1. As an engineer, I can tell you the hesitance to mark all crosswalks does not come from creating a “false sense of security”, but rather creating a landscape of sameness. I fear that CDOT’s bold, noble, and worthy goal of protecting pedestrians may backfire if every single crosswalk in the city is marked with the international ladder style. If all the crosswalks look the same I fear that drivers will become used to them, and they will no longer stand out (the whole point of crosswalk markings). I have always felt that signalized and stop control crosswalks only need to be marked with 6″ lines (or possible not marked for low traffic crossings), and that EVERY mid-block crossing and all crossings within 1/2 mile of a school need to be marked with the international ladder style.

      1. I dont buy this at all. Stop bars get marked everywhere, doesnt mean people get used to them and fail to stop. Likewise, imagine if we stopped painting center lane dividers because people they might fail to stand out

        1. Jass, lets not get carried away with the slippery slope logic. I never made allusion to getting rid of stop bars or centerline markers. My point is that the intent of ladder-style marking are to distinguish them from “standard” 6-inch line crosswalks. If we begin to mark all crosswalks with the ladder style, I fear (though I have no reason to believe, or evidence, this will actually happen) that the ladder style markings will no longer stand out.

          You seem to be stuck up on my reference to not marking some crosswalks at all. This would only apply to residential side streets that have low traffic (most of which are not currently marked).

          1. In Chicago there are many intersections at which some of the crosswalks and at least one (usually just one) is unmarked. (And I’m not talking about where crosswalks were once removed and then a barrier is set up to block people from crossing there, like Michigan and Randolph.)

            I think this is done to encourage people to use the other crosswalk that goes in their desired direction at the same intersection, but I dislike this practice because the unmarked crosswalk is still there and crossing at the other one that is marked going in the desired direction may add distance to the walking trip.

          2. I agree @stevevance:disqus, there needs to be a lot done to make sure that infrastructure/pavement matches the pavement markings. There a lot of locations along collectors (such as Belmont, Fullterton, Ashland, et al) where very outdated ADA ramps indicate there is a mid-block/uncontrolled crossing, but there are not signs or markings to match. It appears they are removing these rogue crossings when they are updating the corners to current ADA standards, but they appear to be WAY behind on that.

        2. Two things.

          I hope you didn’t hate my paragraph because of the way I wrote it, but because of what message the content sends.

          Secondly, when I was in Europe this year, I noticed that center lane dividers are the same color as any other lane divider. In the United States, a yellow line denotes a two-way street and is always yellow (this isn’t 100% true: I saw a white direction divider in Tri-Taylor this year, about 14th and Loomis). In Europe, a solid white line divides a two-way street. This made me uncomfortable, but it forces you to look for other clues that this is a two-way street. And don’t look at parked cars because in many of the cities I visited, cars were parked in both directions on one-way streets.

          I think the purpose of a crosswalk marking, regardless of its style, is to tell other road users that “people will attempt to cross here and you are required to use your knowledge of laws to guide how you behave”. The ladder (also called continental and international style) is the most visible of any crosswalk marking designed to date (I’m not sure where the rare colored ones come into this ranking).

  6. This reminds me of that woman in Georgia who went through court because her child died when they were crossing the street from a mid-“block” bus stop to their apartment complex. I have seen so many bus stops like that… an example is Golf Rd near Schaumburg. There are Pace bus stops in the middle of the road, no crosswalks, not even concrete to stand on while waiting. I have never once seen anyone at the bus stops along this stretch, but I wonder how they’d cross – the nearest lights have to be at least a half-mile in each direction with no sidewalk.

    That’s merely a reflection of suburban design, but I find the same thing on many wide Chicago streets (although we do have a lot more sidewalks). They make cars drive too fast, and as someone else noted, the drivers are very hostile.

    I can’t help but think that, forgetting other factors for a second, wide streets are why a lot of the South side just feels less safe as a pedestrian or cyclist. There are a lot of wide streets all around Chicago, but some of the worst are on the South side. I’ve also noted a bit of drag racing near Stony Island and 79th (by the Skyway) – probably just a side effect of having such wide streets.

    1. Thank you for bringing up the Georgia case. The woman is Raquel Nelson. For those who don’t know, read this article.

      It is the policy of Pace, however, to stop at any intersection and pick up or drop off passengers along the route, provided the bus operator deems it safe to do so. This policy doesn’t apply to every route, though. The details are on Pace’s website and they are kind of confusing. The webpage says that Pace is transitioning to a posted stop-only policy.

  7. It’s all really perspective. I find Chicago has too wide of streets compared to East Coast cities like Boston and Philadelphia which are more pleasurable to walk around. I prefer European streets that don’t even allow cars down them, or if they do, it’s just a tight one way street.
    IMO, Chicago isn’t really a good walking city compared to others, even if it has great transit and livable w/o a car.
    There are too many street level parking garages, blocks are long and streets are too wide in many areas, lack of street level retail too in parts.
    Many of the neighborhoods are “suburbanish” in design with front yards and big setbacks, even if 3 streets over is something like Lincoln Ave.
    Chicago is busy and urban, but it’s also very American in design.

    1. “There are too many street level parking garages, blocks are long and streets are too wide in many areas, lack of street level retail too in parts.”

      Totes. It’s amazing how even in the “walkable” neighborhoods there are large gaps of poor walkability. And then there’s the gaps between neighborhoods that discourages walking, like the dirty expressway underpasses, or the bridges over highways that aren’t plowed in the winter.

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