By Dom Nozzi
A common strategy for “mitigating” (“reducing,” for those of us who speak Plain English) the negative traffic impacts of a proposed Big Box retailer such as Wal-Mart is to require the retailer to pay to widen roads or intersections that serve the store. Doing so is thought to do two things. First, it is thought that such “improvements” will allow the community to avoid traffic congestion caused by the giant retailer. Second, there is a dream that doing so will stop the retailer because the company will not be able to afford to “improve” the road/intersection.
A quick aside: Calling a road or intersection widening an “improvement” is inappropriate. While there might be a brief improvement for motorists, such widening is a degradation for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users.
Is it a good idea to require a proposed Big Box retailer to pay for a bigger road or intersection? In my view, doing so is the worst possible thing that can be done for a proposed retailer. “Easing traffic flow” is precisely what a huge retailer wants and needs, since they are striving to serve a regional population of consumers. They are striving to make things as convenient as possible for as many motorists as possible. Therefore, anything which “eases” traffic flow is an enemy of nearby neighborhoods, the community, and overall quality of life (largely because it would induce huge volumes of new car trips from all over the region – car trips that would have never occurred had the road or intersection not been enlarged).
Especially in town centers, streets must be designed for modest, low-speed car travel. Traffic calming, on-street parking, landscaped bulb-outs and landscaped medians can be very useful. A connected street network is essential, as it slows car speeds and provides travel route choices.
Effective, quality low-speed design obligates motorists to pay attention when they drive. To be careful when they drive. Using the conventional, free-flowing design model, motorists are encouraged to drive too fast, too recklessly, too inattentively. While driving in such “forgiving” places, motorists are enabled to put on make-up. Talk on the cell phone. Eat a sandwich.
Why? Because the street design allows the motorists to pay less attention. The result is dangerous, inattentive, high-speed car traffic.
Oversized streets or intersections make an area totally unwalkable. Quite unsafe, particularly for seniors and children. It becomes much more of a car-only place. It becomes, ultimately, an Anywhere USA indistinguishable from any other strip commercial area in the nation.
Essentially, the street design vision of a community – particularly its town center — should be to create a “Drive To” place that is walkable and safe, rather than a “Drive Through” place that enables large-volume, high speed traffic. Only big retailers want (and need) the latter.
As for the thought that big retailers will be stopped if expensive road and intersection widening is required, don’t fool yourself. Big retailers have big pockets. Typically, even relatively expensive road and intersection modifications are pocket change for the big retailer looking to cash in on a prime market.