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The Difference Between Roads and Streets

A street in Hong Kong. Probably not wide enough for rush hour traffic, but that’s OK.

Listen to any Bruce Springsteen song and you’ll probably hear a reference to “the street”. This is often accompanied by stanzas about how he spent a summer building a ’72 Challenger from scratch, stole a girl from a dude in L.A., or found spiritual salvation in the hum of an inline V6. While Springsteen often uses “streets” and “roads” interchangeably, the terms are often confused by planners and engineers. Let me break it down.


  • Exist in an netherworld separate from neighborhoods, civic engagement, and anything else that doesn’t fit into a traffic model.
  • Efficient, but fragile. Primary purpose is to move traffic. Like a pipe moves water.
  • Very serious business.  Measured by delay, congestion, level of service.
  • Very “Platonic” as defined in Taleb’s critique of predictability in ”Black Swan“  (top-down, formulaic, closed-minded, skeptical). Yes, I know I reference this book a lot.


  • A civic stage.  A platform for creative, social, and economic life.
  • Robust and complimentary.  Multiple activities ensures a vibrant, healthy public space.
  • Democratic and “bottom up”. While infrastructure is built by the city, adaptable and community driven uses gives a neighborhood ownership of the street.
  • Playful, intuitive, exists with neighborhoods, not despite them.

Charles Marohn at Strong Towns explains the concepts of roads and streets using 45mph design speeds as an example. Disregarding surrounding land uses, economic value and social health of neighborhoods, roads designed to be “safe to a fault” have been the status quo for a long time:

The value of a street comes from its ability to support land use patterns that create capturable value. The street with the highest value is the one that creates the greatest amount of tax revenue with the least amount of public expense over multiple life cycles. If we want to maximize the value of a street, we design it in such a way that it supports an adjacent development pattern that is financially resilient, architecturally timeless and socially enduring.

These simple concepts are totally lost on us.  If you want to start to see the world with [accurate] eyes and truly understand why our development approach is bankrupting us, just watch your speedometer. Anytime you are traveling between 30 and 50 miles per hour, you are basically in an area that is too slow to be efficient yet too fast to provide a framework for capturing a productive rate of return. (Strong Towns)

Well said.  Pick the average state highway, urban arterial, neighborhood street with average speeds of 35+ mph, or run of the mill downtown arterial which prioritizes auto traffic, and you’ll see an example of a road. Often, these roads try to be both a street and road, but fail at both. For instance, a state highway designed to funnel traffic as quickly as possible with numerous curb cuts serving auto-centric big box stores is neither an efficient road nor a neighborhood enhancing and economically vibrant street. By trying to serve both through and local trips in such a mono-modal fashion, and by encouraging inefficient and economically draining development patterns, these types of roads erode both a sense of place and revenue generating opportunities for communities.

Finding examples of streets is less clear cut, but far more interesting. Luckily, Daniel Toole has done a great job of documenting the best examples of streets – alleys.  His blog (and his new book, “Tight Urbanism“), is a photographic journey into alleys all over the world. When streets are tightly framed by buildings and surrounded by a mix of uses, something magical happens. It’s the sense of serendipity- turn a corner and you may find an exotic fruit vendor, a busker playing your new favorite song, or a Thai restaurant tucked into a small corner.

Alleys work great as streets because they create an intimate streetscape which serves as a “stage” for outdoor cafes, performers, and other activities.  Based on Donald Appleyard’s research showing that residents of streets with light traffic had three times more friends and twice as many acquaintances as the people who lived on streets with high volumes of traffic, it stands to reason that alleys take this concept to the next level, with the social capital of alleys surpassing even low volume streets and providing more opportunities for social interaction and street life. It can also be argued that alleys are streets in their purest form – primarily a civic stage, robust, “bottom up”, and contributing to civic life.

Jackson Heights Plaza in NYC is a great example of a road turned into a street.  Continuing the precedent of  public plaza installations throughout the city, travel lanes converted into new outdoor cafes and other people-oriented uses have energized neighborhoods, increased foot traffic and given a boost to local businesses.

Streets converted into pedestrian plazas were a city planning fad in the 1970s and 1980s and were expected to revitalize downtowns, but instead, the conversions often created dead zones due to poor management and lack of foot traffic. NYC’s program strategically locates plazas by selecting sites with active retail, tourism magnets, and abundant foot traffic.  The plazas have also been a boon to nearby businesses. Would you rather do businesses next to 45 mph traffic, or on a street where people are encouraged to stroll into your shop without fear of being hit by a bus?

The Tactical Urbanism Guide from The Street Plans Collaborative  is a excellent guide to creative, community focused public space projects (full document below). A lot of examples focus on low cost, short turn-around projects non profits and community groups could initiate.  Small things like adding chairs to a street corner, creating a garden out of a vacant lot, or building a mini-park out of sod, benches and portable planters in a parking space can change how neighborhoods think about streets and public spaces. The very process of planning and building these projects can also strengthen communities.

Small, grass roots projects highlighted in the Tactical Urbanism Guide also challenge what could be considered the dictatorship of auto-focused public spaces. With streets often making up more than 15% of cities total land area, leaving these spaces dedicated solely to automobiles is an environmental, social, and economic waste. While cities are spending enormous amounts of money to maintain their streets and related utilities, there should be a better return on investment than simply supplying drivers a marginally smoother ride or shaving 2 minutes off of an auto trip.  The Tactical Urbanism Guide encourages readers to think creatively about what a street could mean for a neighborhood.

Finally, I can’t mention livable streets without mentioning the Open Streets Initiative, an effort to bring Bogata style Cyclovias to cities across the U.S. Open Streets events close off a series of streets to traffic (usually on Sunday) to encourage physical activity, socializing, community events, and local business patronage. These events also bring people from diverse walks of life together. People who may have never run into each other during the course of their daily routines.

The true potential of a street isn’t the efficient movement of vehicles, but the social and design qualities that make people want to stay around awhile.


  • Kate

    Don’t forget San Franciso’s “Parklet” Program. Permit holder (business or group that requests park) pays for maintenance:

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    There are plenty of blogs on the same topic but your blog is different and more informative. Please go on with the such work so that people may revisit.

  • Mynaboyd

    “the hum of an inline V6″ in the second sentence is an oxymoron. Should read ‘inline 6′ or ‘V6′. In referring to Bruce Springsteen, just go with ‘V8′. Great article!