By Dom Nozzi
April 2, 2001
A friend recently created a “Worst Streets” list. Overall, I think the Worst Streets list is a fantastic idea.
One thing I’d hate to have happen with the Worst Streets list, but nevertheless expect, is that a number of folks might think that the nastiest thing about auto-oriented sprawl is how ugly it is, and think that all we need to do is Keep America Beautiful litter campaigns and sign control along our ugly streets and everything will be peachy keen.
This is not even remotely accurate.
In fact, one could argue that one of the things that sprawl is good at is making things look pretty and clean (compared to those “grimy, ugly” inner cities).
The attractiveness of a street is comparatively trivial to the key issues of buildings and street trees being close to the street, designing for transportation choice, no more than three lanes, no double-left turn lanes, and low design speed. If we get those elements right, the street will inevitably be attractive and free of such horrors as screaming signage, and no transportation choice.
If we don’t, we’re not doing anything sustainable or effective to fix the street.
So while I think the “best” and “worst” street list would be great for communities, we need to strive to get the publicity for the lists focused on what REALLY matters. As Ed Abbey once said, it’s not the beer cans I mind – it’s the roads.
Following some media publicity about the worst streets, some have disagreed with the ranking of their street. One said that “Sprawl and auto dependence is not bad. We don’t think the street is ‘dirty’ or ‘ugly.'”
Such comments are missing the point, as I note above. In fact, sprawl and strip commercial is usually more attractive (to a motorist, at least) and clean than places which boast quality urbanism. Again, we need the ranking of worst streets to focus on function problems, not visual problems, so that citizens do not get confused about what we mean by “worst.”
The worst streets are those with large building setbacks, a large number of roadway lanes, lack of street trees, lack of transportation choice, etc.
Let’s avoid the Martha Stewart solutions and concerns. We don’t want to mislead people into thinking that sign control or litter control are the problems that will fix a bad street. To me, those are mostly the unpleasant secondary outcomes of a street with poor functional design. Get the underlying functional problems corrected, and the secondary litter, signage, and franchise architecture schlock will start fading away on its own.
Ultimately, it comes down to having street designers respected by citizens. We have the citizens agree that a street is bad. The citizens then turn to their trusty professional designers and say: “Tell us how to fix the street so it is good.” We certainly do not want them (or conventional traffic engineers or most elected officials) to come up with solutions that don’t get at the root of the problem.
The street is not bad primarily because of litter or sign pollution.