How can I encourage city leaders to not widen a neighborhood street for cut-through traffic?

When local governments propose to widen a neighborhood street, that usually means they believe the existing street can’t adequately serve the amount of current or future drivers using it. This approach, as you’ll learn in this article, does not alleviate congestion and, in the process, creates dangerous streets.

In this article, we’ll give you the information you need to confidently discuss neighborhood street widening projects with your city leaders, including: 

  • Why cars cut through neighborhoods 

  • Why widening streets won’t alleviate congestion

  • Why wide streets hurt community wealth

Why cars cut through neighborhoods 

Before you contest a street widening project in your neighborhood, it helps to understand why drivers are cutting through it in the first place. Your city likely has a hierarchical street network, meaning most vehicle trips are funneled into a small number of major routes.

As congestion worsens on those routes (think rush hour), drivers seek an alternative. The result: drivers cut through your neighborhood, hoping to avoid traffic. 

Your city leaders, noticing that the major route is congested, may consider widening the neighborhood street where drivers cut-through. Their thinking is logical: widen the street, and therefore improve traffic flow. However, as you’ll learn below, widening a street won’t alleviate congestion.

Traffic on neighborhood streets isn’t necessarily bad: distributing traffic more broadly across many routes instead of concentrating it on a few routes has some important benefits. It can mean the city can accommodate more traffic with narrower streets and less expensive infrastructure. As long as the number of cars cutting through is small enough and their speed is slow enough, it doesn't have to be hugely detrimental to quality of life.

When a few major thoroughfares are expected to carry the burden of nearly all the traffic, on the other hand, those streets tend to become wide, dangerous, value-destroying stroads.

Read more about these issues in two classic Strong Towns articles:

Everyone Knows We Have a Traffic Problem

The Neighborhood Traffic Trade-Off

The question is: What's the right way to respond when cut-through traffic becomes a problem?

Why widening streets won’t alleviate congestion

The real problem is when local government chooses to widen that neighborhood street. Suddenly, people driving to—for example, a highway ramp—have a second desirable option. Their thinking: forget the existing, congested route; instead, take the newly-widened street, straight through your neighborhood. 

This may alleviate congestion at first. Say 3,000 trips/day were taken at the major route. Now that drivers have a second desirable option, it’s reasonable to assume that 1,500 drivers will take each route. 

But what happens when drivers who’ve actively avoided the originally congested route learn that an alternative has been widened? 

More people will begin using both routes—returning one route to its original level of congestion, while creating new congestion on the neighborhood street. This is called induced demand: when you expand a street, you encourage more people to drive—filling up the newly added lanes. You can learn more about induced demand here.

Discussing induced demand with your city leaders can help them understand why, long-term, widening your neighborhood street won’t alleviate congestion. However, beyond congestion, there’s another reason why the local government shouldn’t widen a neighborhood street: it will hurt the community wealth of the neighborhood.

Why wide streets hurt community wealth

At Strong Towns, we argue that a crucial way to build community wealth is to build places where streets serve people—not traffic flow. Let’s use your downtown as an example: the streets shouldn’t prioritize traffic flow; instead, they should serve people exploring the downtown.

However, community wealth isn’t reserved for downtowns—it also applies to residential neighborhoods, where you raise your family, converse with neighbors, and allow children to play in the yard.

Picture your neighborhood street now: hopefully you’re confident allowing your children to play in the yard, converse with neighbors on the sidewalk, and walk across the street towards the corner store. This doesn't have to mean there's no traffic on your street—but it doesn’t disrupt your daily life. 

Now, what if that neighborhood street had, say, four lanes instead of two—diverting cars from the nearby congested route to your street. Would you still walk across the street to the corner store? Would you still allow your children to play in the front yard? 

No—and understandably so: 

The counterintuitive thing your city can do instead

Many people oppose widening a neighborhood street because they’re against any cut-through traffic. Their reasons are valid; however, this doesn't resolve the issue of congested major routes.

What does, in some cases, is counterintuitive: your city should look into narrowing and slowing the cars on existing major routes, instead of widening minor ones. Why? This approach won't induce more traffic overall, via induced demand (as we discussed above). But it will make the different ways to pass through or near your neighborhood closer to equally desirable for drivers, as well as calmer and safer for everyone else.

This will tend to distribute traffic, so that it isn't a huge nuisance on any one street (including yours). This is alternative to concentrating that traffic to the point where it becomes a huge obstacle to getting around your city safely—and to building community wealth.

Here are some Strong Towns articles about successful road diets, in both big cities and small towns:

A Los Angeles Road Diet that Worked (Los Angeles, CA)

Road Diet Bridges a Barrier, Boosts Safety (San Diego, CA)

Right-Sizing Akron's Kenmore Boulevard (Akron, OH)

The Battle of Stanley Street (Stevens Point, WI)

With these insights, you can confidently help your city leaders understand why they shouldn’t widen your neighborhood street for cut-through traffic. 

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