Tear up the side streets!

Jenson Hagen

What is the thinking behind building our cities in small square blocks?  Venture to any city and what you find are little islands of homes surrounded by side streets that barely get used.

Couldn't we take out little sections and create a grid of larger rectangles?  Drivers normally don't wade down side streets; they seek out a path of least resistance by finding the next major arterial because traffic flows faster thereon.

What is the point of having a massive network of intersecting side streets?  Let's scale back the number of intersecting points, have cars go down an extra 1-3 blocks to make their turn, and replace those little sections with improvements.      

These small strips could be used for home building, urban gardens, neighborhood parks or business space.  Instead of pushing more growth out into the suburbs, we could make our cities more compact which would decrease traffic overall.  It could even bring a municipality more money from property taxes while decreasing the amount spent on maintaining sparsely used infrastructure. 


Comments

  • Steve Marx (unverified)
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    I usually agree with you, but take exception here. GO to downtown Portland. THere is almost no straight-thru streets. We end up burning a lot extra gas and it is killing retail downtown (ask a small shopkeeper.)

    I understand the goal with density, but that usually means more congestion in the real world.

  • Steve Marx (unverified)
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    I usually agree with you, but take exception here. GO to downtown Portland. THere is almost no straight-thru streets. We end up burning a lot extra gas and it is killing retail downtown (ask a small shopkeeper.)

    I understand the goal with density, but that usually means more congestion in the real world.

  • Steve Marx (unverified)
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    I usually agree with you, but take exception here. GO to downtown Portland. THere is almost no straight-thru streets. We end up burning a lot extra gas and it is killing retail downtown (ask a small shopkeeper.)

    I understand the goal with density, but that usually means more congestion in the real world.

  • GWeiss (unverified)
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    The reason Portland has smaller blocks than most cities is because it doesn't have back alleys--which typically serve as safety corridors for fire and rescue operations. Without alleys, the trucks need streets to get to house fires.

    Planned communities where rescuers don't have access to houses from the street aren't really in existence anymore--mostly because they've burned down. One house fire that spreads to surrounding structures is all it takes to wipeout an entire "pod" of structures.

    You could look it up.

  • ScaryTail (unverified)
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    File this under: "Stupidest things ever written on BlueOregon."

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Jenson Hagen:

    Couldn't we take out little sections and create a grid of larger rectangles?

    Bob T:

    Nothing wrong with that, but in the meantime it should be acknowledged that paving many of these side streets was a mistake.

    Jenson Hagen:

    Drivers normally don't wade down side streets; they seek out a path of least resistance by finding the next major arterial because traffic flows faster thereon.

    Bob T:

    Yes, they do this for the very reasons you state. Keep in mind that many do drive on numerous residential streets if the arterials are too slow, and arterials are often chosen when a nearby highway like the Banfield is too slow.

    That's why it's good policy to make sure that there is room on highways and that arterials do not have their efficiency reduced by taking away lanes -- more cars travelling on more residential streets will increase the number of accidents involving cars colliding with cyclists, pedestrians, and other cars (parked and moving).

    Jenson Hagen:

    These small strips could be used for home building, urban gardens, neighborhood parks or business space.

    Bob T:

    Sounds like good place to insert pedestrian and bicycle pathways, if people don't mind having to stop and look both ways every hundred or so feet. If you could do this all over again I'd keep some of this space as these travel corridors. If you have some dream about changing what exists, forget it. Where will the money come from?

    Bob Tiernan Portland

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    scarytail, your comment would precede his post.

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    Steve, your reply was car-centric. Juergen is on to a good idea; it probably needs work, and would need location-specific detailing, but i like the basic idea: force cars onto main streets; perhaps use common parking areas; turn side streets into common areas. all the details, like safety, weather issues, etc, can be dealt with. but i like the basic idea which is to reclaim more of the city from cars, which dominate everything. this is not a zero-sum game, but that's how it's being played -- for the benefit of cars. we can do better, and this is a good idea to talk about & work with.

  • Eric (unverified)
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    Even if you end up disagreeing with her, you should read Chapt 9, "The Need for Small Blocks" in Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities and then revisit the question. The ostensibly rational plan of draining traffic to collector and then to arterial streets exacerbates congestion and makes it more difficult for bikes and peds. Small-block grids are actually pretty efficient.

    Also, look at the urban renewal blocks around the Lawrence Halprin cluster of fountains - Keller Fountain, Lovejoy Fountain, the Harrison condos (formerly Portland Center Apartments) etc. They are just the sort of superblocks of carless pedestrian ways you suggest - and they're pretty dead.

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    As a new San Francisco bike commuter, I'm surprised daily at how inefficient the city is at moving cars around. Thing is, it's kinda to everyone's benefit to move the cars around efficiently…the sooner they get where they're going, the sooner they're off the road.

    I like Jenson's idea. Especially if some of the streets are reclaimed for bicycle use, in a way that minimizes contact with cars.

    I like solutions where everybody wins. As biker, I think the inefficiencies stick out a little more.

  • Blue Collar Libertarian (unverified)
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    One of the reasons Portland has such small blocks is because corner lots sell for a higher price or at least did some 100 or so years ago.

    Ending the transit monopoly would solve part of the problem and help with a number of other ones.

  • Driver (unverified)
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    I agree. This is why newer suburban areas already look like this.

    Urban planning didn't stop with 1970s Portland neighborhoods.

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    Jenson,

    This is some interesting off-the-cuff thinking, but your solution will increase traffic and congestion.

    This is EXACTLY how the suburbs are designed. Neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that funnel traffic to minor thoroughfares and then to major arterials. If there's only one route from your house to the grocery store, you're going to spend that time sitting in traffic - even during non-rush-hour periods.

    Grid layouts disperse congestion. If there's even a little congestion - an accident, a broken light, a school letting out students - folks tend to immediately head off onto those side streets, dispersing the congestion quickly and without fuss.

    Drive around Beaverton awhile, making trips between residential areas and common stops (grocery, dry cleaner, post office, bank) and then do the same in Southeast Portland. You'll be amazed at the difference.

    Which isn't to say that we can't improve the quality of the side streets. Traffic calming strategies like bumpouts, speed bumps, urban street art, wider sidewalks, benches, dedicated bike spaces, parking permits in areas near commercial corridors, etc. Those tactics will tend to improve the side streets for use by pedestrians, bicycles, skateboards, and others - while preventing the would-be urban NASCAR driver from rocketing through.

    And that doesn't even address GWeiss's note about public safety access.

    Like Eric, I highly recommend Jane Jacobs' book. It is the seminal work on urban design. Read that one book, and you've begun to understand the core principles of all of urban design.

    Secondarily, if you really care about traffic issues, I'd read Stuck in Traffic by Anthony Downs. Until you understand the law of triple convergence, you don't really understand traffic at all.

  • Force Factor Reviews (unverified)
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    stay in the city for eight days. Beijing is a very beautiful city and so is the country. once you get there you would think eight days isn't enough to fully enjoy the city.

  • Eric Berg (unverified)
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    Portland's small block grid was implemented for profit (increased value of corner lots) and flood mitigation (faster receding flood waters through more narrow channels).

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    I like my grid. I like my quiet city street. I like my car parked right at my house and don't feel like trudging 2-3 blocks with groceries and packages in the stinging cold rain. I don't want a business located 40 feet out my front door. We can barely maintain the streets and now you want greenways everywhere?

    Sorry, off the cuff not really well thought out idea by someone who I suspect does not own a home.

  • Michael M. (unverified)
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    And in addition to Jane Jacobs and Anthony Downs, read "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)" by Tom Vanderbilt. It provides some amazing insights into the counterintuitive nature of traffic management and a few specific examples of very successful redesigns that, I'm guessing based on your proposal, you would be surprised by.

  • Zarathustra (unverified)
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    I really think this is the kind of idea that if you get it, it's a no-brainer, and if you don't, you won't for an awfully long time, if ever. It goes to defining a lot of assumptions about city planning.

    Skimmed this, so please forgive if I missed it, but I'm rather disappointed that some of the actual history hasn't been cited. Walk along SE 39th, south of Powell. As you walk up to 42nd ave, you will notice that there is no 40/41 streets. The original city boundary was 39th and the houses built on 42nd were part of a development done about 1910. The 1000-1500 square foot houses sat on 42nd, and the lot ran back to 39th ave. My guesstimation makes that 10 acres. 10 acres with a beautiful slope. Those were sweet lots. It was assumed that it would be used for gardening. Naturally, it had light rail connections to downtown. Who would build out without doing that?

    Many times, living on 42nd, I looked at the little original job sitting next door, and lamented our condition. Now it's a part of the real-estate bubble. Sold for 250,000- no central heat- after the previous owners were foreclosed on for buying too many mortgages from former football players. Meanwhile, a number of the lots made from the original garden have gone to no grass, all garden, landscaping. And in the 21st century Jenson proposes what we did a century ago, and people aren't sure we could actually do it. We have allowed corporate interests to lower our standard of living so much that our perception of what can and can't be is totally screwed.

    I say, "hear, hear"!!! Excellent knock, sir!

  • Allan (unverified)
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    I fully disagree with the idea mainly because the motivation doesn't seem to be fully thought out. Having fully-connected streets are something that the suburbs wish they had. I think some alleys that are effectively driveways behind houses maybe could be removed, however a paved grid is an asset that is not being fully valued here. I appreciate the discussion and could be convinced with a fuller explanation of how life would work and what the street space would be used for

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    It provides some amazing insights into the counterintuitive nature of traffic management

    Like, for example, there are places where getting rid of stop signs actually makes intersections safer. (Everyone has to stop and look - rather than half the folks blasting their way through.)

  • ws (unverified)
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    Cul-de-sacs often stand right in the way of what could be a superb pedestrian or bike route. Some people realize that a 2-3 block walk to the store, or even further can help to improve their health...and they'd love to do it if it didn't mean walking a gauntlet of noisy, dirty, swift moving traffic. To reduce the number of cars used for short trips requires creating safe, inviting routes for people on foot and bikes through neighborhoods to basic services just outside the neighborhood across the battlefield of big motor vehicle arterials.

    More people today that ride bikes are fitting them with trailers that can hold lots of groceries. Grocery stores would be doing the community a big favor if more of them actually had decent places to park such a rig.

    People drive their cars for every basic need because the design of many neighborhoods compel them to do so. Make it hard enough to walk or bike from home to the store, school, or whatever, and sure...if they can afford one, people sure as hell are going to prefer the comfort and protection of a car to subjecting themselves to the dangers of cars, trucks, and buses whizzing swiftly past them.

  • Terry Parker (unverified)
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    T. A. Barnhart suggests the basic idea here is to be less car-centric even though the majority of current street and roadway infrastructure funding comes from motorists paid taxes and fees. One of the founding fathers of this country, James Madison said: “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.” Redistribution of wealth is specifically constrained in the US Constitution. The US Constitution is considered the supreme law of the land. To reclaim more of the city from cars as has been suggested must come with the price tag that reduces taxes and fees on motorists and assesses it elsewhere. Forcing cars on to main streets would require those streets to be widened to handle significantly more capacity. Driving an extra 1-3 three blocks to make turns adds to fuel consumption. Common parking lots would probably encourage more vandalism to privately owned vehicles. Most people in single family homes want to park their car(s) in attached driveways or on the street directly in front. That is no different than bicyclists that want bicycle racks right at and often blocking the front doors of their destinations, or PSU students that want to step off transit and directly into the university buildings.

    Taxing motorists to pay for such things like specialized bicycle infrastructure and non-motor vehicle common areas is a form of a redistribution of wealth associated with socialism. In the short term, if Portland Mayor Sam Adams is successful in ramming through his 500 Million Dollar Bicycle Master Plan; to be legally paid for, a requirement that bicyclists be licensed and a pay a hefty registration fee must also be implemented for the cost of any build out. Any other source of funding method would be an illegal redistribution of wealth - welfare style charity to bicyclists – that is specifically constrained in the US Constitution and the law of the land tricky politicians like Adams must also be required to comply with. .

  • The Doctor (unverified)
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    Well, I knew James Madison and he would vomit listening to you, Terry Parker. In our household, when one talks about narrow selfish near-sighted POVs, you still remain the standard and undisputed #1. A Portland original.

  • Terry Parker (unverified)
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    James Madison known as one of the authors of the US Constitution would undoubtedly tax the bicyclists just as Multnomah County did in the late 1800’s – at the request of bicycle clubs – with license fees to pay for bike paths. The bicyclists of today however represent the new socialist movement only to become freeloading deadbeats that want all this exclusive infrastructure as long as somebody else pays for it! James Madison and the other fathers of this country had the facts well in mind that the people coming to America were escaping socialism and oppressive forms of government in Europe and other places. They wrote the US Constitution to reflect the values of we the people in a free society thereby rejecting the socialistic mindset.

  • Douglas K. (unverified)
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    Small square blocks and low-traffic streets create highly walkable neighborhoods. I'd rather see more such areas in Portland, if opportunity arises to break up some larger blocks and create more through streets.

    That said, there may be a few cases in Portland where a neighborhood would benefit by closing a street segment to automobile traffic and turning that street into a small park, plaza, or community garden that still maintains pedestrian and bicycle access. But I suspect such projects would be few and far between -- situations where there will be alternative access to homes and businesses, and mostly in neighborhoods that are "park deficient" with no better opportunities to create public green space than closing some lightly-used streets.

    Cul-de-sacs often stand right in the way of what could be a superb pedestrian or bike route.

    Where possible, the City should look at purchasing right-of-way from the edges of properties on cul-de-sacs. A few six-foot walkways between cul-de-sacs could do wonders in turning an auto-dependent neighborhood into a walkable one.

  • Larry McD (unverified)
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    Certainly worthy of discussion. I was visiting St. Louis (near my hometown) a couple of decades ago when entire neighborhoods turned themselves into gated communities for a variety reasons, traffic not least. The results, as I've followed them, were mixed... but results are always mixed.

    However, in a city where people blithely jam traffic for blocks in order to turn left off W. Burnside into side streets (and fast food outlets, and parking lots) in rush hour traffic, I don't think you're gonna get much traction.

    I've never been, much less lived, anywhere where the concept of doing three right (or left) turns to keep traffic flowing was so unthinkable. Maybe it's the absence of free driver's ed in high school?

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    True, I am not a traffic expert. It's been my observation that long rectangular blocks seem more practical.

    You see examples of what I'm talking about off Hawthorne past 39th avenue. You see long rows of houses without the usual intersecting street every 5th house. These long streets don't lead to traffic congestion by any means. You still have intersecting streets--just not every 5th house. They are nice to walk along. And they compact more homes into a defined area.

  • Greg D. (unverified)
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    Just drove through Laurelhurst on my way home. Wondering exactly which streets Mr. Hagen proposes to close and infill with townhomes.

  • Brig. Peri Brown, Purity Troll Brigade (unverified)
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    James Madison known as one of the authors of the US Constitution

    which document's chief aim was to "provide for the common good". "Socialist" had no meaning in the 18th century. "Vote" didn't even mean remotely the same thing. Pure "fallacy of the middle term".

  • Richard (unverified)
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    Oh sure just tear up the side streets and put in bioswales to collect rainwater, mulching bins, environmental interpretive centers, bike paths, and free garden plots. Yeah little hippie farms everywhere.

    I know just how it could be done. Have public open houses and gather comments in support of the ideas.

    Then declare the overwhelming public support and avoid a public vote.

  • A Conservative Democrat (unverified)
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    “Purity Troll Brigade” Is that supposed to be funny? The presumption is this person is a bicyclist because he or she observably did not like another person’s post portrayal of bicyclists. Such an identification (Purity Troll Brigade) only demonstrates how ego-centric, self-centered & self-serving bicyclists have become, and that includes wanting to stifle free speech when the truth about how bicyclists avoid paying their share of road funding is accurately stated by somebody else. The term Purity Troll Brigade sounds more like an elitist-supremacist attitude similar to what Hitler might come up with to work the side streets similar his SS whom sent people off to concentration camps he (Hitler) didn’t want to be part of his super race society. Maybe somebody needs to check their own self-importance before stroking the keyboard.

  • ws (unverified)
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    "...You see examples of what I'm talking about off Hawthorne past 39th avenue. You see long rows of houses without the usual intersecting street every 5th house. These long streets don't lead to traffic congestion by any means. You still have intersecting streets--just not every 5th house. They are nice to walk along. And they compact more homes into a defined area." jenson

    I haven't driven or walked out that way that I can remember. You say they're "...nice to walk along". Tell us why they're nice to walk along. What's the traffic like on those long streets? How wide are they?

    Trying to put my finger on a recently completed study about safety of neighborhoods related to the type of street grid they were built on(can't seem to find it right off hand). One of the conclusions of the study was that streets with lots of intersections help to naturally slow down traffic. I probably wouldn't be inclined to favor long blocks if the public weren't allowed free passage through them mid-block by foot or bike to destinations on the other side of the block.

  • Brig. Peri Brown, Purity Troll Brigade (unverified)
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    Posted by: A Conservative Democrat | Jan 8, 2010 11:37:37 PM

    “Purity Troll Brigade” Is that supposed to be funny?

    I didn't coin it. It was used as an insult by mainline Dems. However, you demonstrate the central thesis- why we don't mind it- that there is no diff between a liberal Dem and a conservative Dem. You all are so obsessed with the sausage making of politics that you've overlooked the wonderful fruit salad to be had for nothing.

    You have Steve Maurer to that for my rank.

    As far as ego-centric goes, you know, it's funny about human nature. Start dieing at significantly higher rates than your neighbors, deal daily with people that would like to see you dead because you aren't lazy like them, and you know what? You get a bit self conscious. Even ego centric.

    I fear how long Jenson will survive here, given that BO seems to have declared war on the data seeking personality. Ultimately that probably explains our street grids better than anything. 5% of the US population or less, they are as much as 70% of the population in Germany, where I would love to move, as Richard would be a neo-Nazi and we could just throw his ilk in the hoosegow.

    Satisfied?

  • Eric (unverified)
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    WS & Jenson et al - Over at Portland Transport, Chris posted a study of California neighborhoods, whose conclusion was, in Chris' words, "that cities built before 1950 are safer (in terms of both serious injuries and fatalities for all classes of users: auto drivers/passengers, cyclists and pedestrians) than cities built after 1950.

    The differences appears to be in the type of street network. Compact street grids seem to be safer, compared to the arterial-collector-local street 'tree' style of street network popular in post-war development."

  • Jessica P (unverified)
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    <h2>This idea is interesting to me, but not for downtown Portland. I live in East Portland and we have many, many unimproved streets that bisect our neighborhoods. Since the city seems to have no interest in improving these roads any time soon, and these streets already have no traffic, why not replace the mud and potholes with grass, vegetation and pedestrian and bike pathways? Turn them into neighborhood connectors instead of neighborhood blights.</h2>

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