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  6.  | Stroad to Recovery: Balancing the Needs of Roads and Streets

Stroad to Recovery: Balancing the Needs of Roads and Streets

by Feb 5, 2024Engineering, Magazine, Transportation

Kevin Smith Photography | Bettisworth North

During a late autumn sunrise, Charles Marohn walked through Anchorage’s Fairview neighborhood. Marohn, perhaps the most famous traffic engineer in the country, had been to forty-nine other states, and his tour finally brought him to Alaska. What he saw, he said afterward, made him sad.

Gambell Street and Ingra Street, bisecting Fairview, are part of the Seward Highway junction with the Glenn Highway. Along narrow sidewalks, traffic roars by at 35 miles per hour.

Marohn quipped, “Is it spelled ‘gamble’ because you’re gambling to cross it?”

A state study in 2018 found the Anchorage area’s highest pedestrian crash rate is on Gambell Street between 9th and 15th Avenues, and Ingra Street has the region’s highest per-mile rate of vehicle crashes.

To Allen Kemplen, president of the Fairview Community Council, a highway through an urban neighborhood is illogical and unsafe. “You’ll move mountains to make a road safe for somebody in an automobile or a truck, right? But making a road safe for human beings—flesh and blood—you don’t seem to care,” says Kemplen.

In forty-nine states, Marohn has seen it before. “This is North America,” he says. “Anchorage is not uniquely bad. It is typical bad.”

The conflict is part of the message Marohn came to Alaska to deliver, part of a discussion he started when he gave a name to Gambell’s flawed design.

Rules of the Stroad

Streets are spaces where people and vehicles mix. Roads connect living centers—town to town or one part of town to another. On streets, drivers expect to stop for pedestrians or for vehicles turning, parking, or loading. On roads, pedestrians risk their lives where drivers have priority.

Many, many facilities blur that distinction, as Marohn observed around 2011. In his papers, he invented the portmanteau “STROAD.” The capital letters were meant to catch attention, as engineers and planners would ask about the non-existent acronym.

Once defined, stroads become obvious. “It is a transportation investment that tries to both move traffic and create economic development at the same time. When you’re building a stroad, you’re building a really bad road that also is a really bad street,” Marohn says.

The term remained somewhat obscure until 2021 when the YouTube channel Not Just Bikes published the video “Stroads Are Ugly, Expensive, and Dangerous (and they’re everywhere).”

That’s where Stephanie Cloud, a landscape architect with Bettisworth North, first learned of it. “I hadn’t really thought about the distinction between a road and a street,” she says. “Roads take you from place to place. Then you slow down in those places, and those are the commercial nodes with streets.”

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Trade-offs between access and mobility are well understood. For instance, a diagram published by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) plots an inverse relationship between mobility and accessibility.

As Marohn puts it, “The value of your road goes down when you start building stuff [along it]. If you’re building a road to move cars quickly, and someone comes and says, ‘We need to put a signal here so we can have a big-box store and a gas station,’ well OK, but you’ve just wrecked the road.”

State transportation crews installed a one-block fence along Minnesota Drive late last summer, despite the Spenard community’s wishes for pedestrian-friendly development.

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Ingra Street widens heading into Fairview, encouraging drivers to accelerate above the posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour before hitting a stop light.

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Believing that cities have overbuilt infrastructure beyond the capacity of their tax base to support, Charles Marohn founded the nonprofit Strong Towns to advocate for sustainable urban development.

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Stroad Smarts

The FHWA classifies roads by function: interstates, urban or rural arterials (that is, highways not built to Interstate System standards), major and minor collectors, and local roads (which Marohn calls “streets”). According to the agency, collectors “balance mobility with land access.”

By calling collectors “stroads,” Marohn admits there’s some criticism implied.

However, it’s not necessarily pejorative. “I feel like it’s more of a neutral term,” says Mark Kimerer, principal landscape architect at Bettisworth North, “because it’s something we live with and experience on a daily basis.”

For instance, stroads that intersect the Gambell Street-Ingra Street alignment include the Fifth and Sixth Avenue couplet, Fireweed Lane, and the Northern Lights Boulevard and Benson Boulevard couplet. Kimerer also points to Dimond Boulevard, Tudor Road, and Muldoon Road as examples.

The Old Seward Highway was once the road out of Anchorage until businesses grew around it, so a new highway was built in 1971. A similar conflict in Cooper Landing, where Sterling Highway traffic slows to neighborhood speed, is being addressed by a 15-mile bypass, slated for completion in 2028.

“I think the north side of Spenard is a pleasant place for both drivers and pedestrians and hopefully could be a model for other places in Anchorage.”

—Meg Mielke, President, Spenard Community Council

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In Wasilla, the Parks Highway serves as both a main drag and an inter-city link. Bypass concepts have been proposed since the ‘80s. The latest planning and environmental linkage study was in the works last year, gathering public comment, until it was paused.

By contrast, Palmer has a more amiable relationship with the Glenn Highway. Signals stop traffic at major intersections, but the downtown area is conspicuously off the main arterial. “I like Palmer,” says Kimerer. “A little more character.”

His colleague, Cloud, adds, “Enjoyable to be there.”

No slight against Wasilla; every North American town has its stroads.

A Stroad Less Traveled

In Fairbanks, Airport Way is a fine cross-town conveyance. However, miles of chain-link fence on either side indicate conflicting needs. The fence discourages pedestrian crossing because the road slices through where people might walk.

Last year, two roads paralleling Airport Way received sidewalk upgrades. Pedestrian amenities could boost the overall rating for Fairbanks on Walk Score, a website for apartment hunters that has become a simple measure of walkability.

In Alaska, Fairbanks has the highest score with 32 out of 100, just ahead of Anchorage’s 31. Juneau, the only other Alaska city scored, has 21; all three are considered “car dependent.”

Some neighborhoods score better (but many are not scored at all, including Fairview; a heat map shows a friendly green zone straddling the Gambell Steet-Ingra Street couplet). Out of forty in Anchorage, the top spot goes to “Downtown Spenard,” the segment of Spenard Road that overlaps Midtown north of 32nd Avenue. Its walkability of 87 is nearly on par with New York City or top-ranked San Francisco.

Spenard, once the road from Anchorage to an out-of-town lumber camp, has steadily become more street-like. Thirty years ago, the segment south and west of Minnesota Drive was overhauled into a three-lane street with wide sidewalks.

Those improvements were partly thanks to NeighborWorks Alaska, a nonprofit housing organization. “Our community members and advocates were part of the redesign,” says Lindsey Hajduk, director of community engagement. “It was forward-looking in the ‘90s and gave us an example of what we could do to make more of that ‘neighborhood feel’ along the corridor.”

A more recent phase revamped the Downtown Spenard stretch. Bettisworth North had a hand in it, designing crosswalks away from signaled intersections and consolidating driveways.

Meg Mielke, president of the Spenard Community Council, welcomes the change. “I think the north side of Spenard is a pleasant place for both drivers and pedestrians and hopefully could be a model for other places in Anchorage,” she says.

“I hadn’t really thought about the distinction between a road and a street… Roads take you from place to place. Then you slow down in those places, and those are the commercial nodes with streets.”

—Stephanie Cloud, Landscape Architect, Bettisworth North

Offices of Bettisworth North overlook Fireweed Lane, an example of a road lined with restaurants, offices, and repair shops that might benefit from a more street-like environment.

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Fork in the Stroad

Many of Walk Score’s highest-ranked Anchorage neighborhoods have Minnesota Drive as part of their boundary. That is, the expressway manifests a barrier to walkability.

A new barrier was installed late last summer at the edge of Downtown Spenard. A fence in the median between Northern Lights Boulevard and Benson Boulevard is meant to deter jaywalking.

With the Northern Lights Center mall and Walgreens on one side and Carrs Aurora Village on the other, shoppers on foot must cross the “outside” corners of the Northern Lights Boulevard and Benson Boulevard intersections; crossing is forbidden at the “inside” corners.

The Spenard Community Council protested in November, passing a resolution fourteen to four in favor of removing the barrier. “The majority believed that the wall makes things worse for drivers, pedestrians, as well as businesses and homes on both sides,” Mielke says. “There is a concern that the wall is part of a process of making Minnesota Drive a high-speed highway without pedestrian crossing.”

The Low Stroad

The process of making Gambell Street and Ingra Street part of a highway was “a clear act of discrimination,” according to a resolution adopted by the Anchorage Assembly in 2022. Plans for a highway link skirting Merrill Field airport were scrapped due to cost after the 1964 earthquake. Instead, the couplet was widened in 1966 despite warnings that doing so would harm the neighborhood—one of the few areas where property covenants did not exclude non-white homeowners.

Around the same time, the I Street and L Street couplet (the north end of Minnesota Drive) was routed through South Addition. Kemplen, who previously worked as a transportation planner, points to inclined curves that slow traffic on three lanes in each direction instead of four. “They had separated sidewalks, they had trees, they had slower speeds,” he says. “Fairview? There’s no separation. You walk on Gambell Street, a 4-foot-wide sidewalk… If you’re not scared-the-bejeezus-out-of, you’re not a human being!”

Marohn calls it an “oft-repeated story” that happened to minority neighborhoods across America. “I look at how much money you have spent on infrastructure that is actually making you poorer. You’ve spent three times what you should’ve spent, and as a result, you made your neighborhood worse. It just makes me sad,” he says.

Fairview has seen improvements since the original sin of the Gambell Street-Ingra Street couplet. On side streets, Kemplen helped bring about “traffic calming” by interrupting the grid with chicanes and tighter intersections. “We implemented that vision, and it’s a totally different place,” he says, recalling that people used to be afraid to go outdoors. “And what we want to do is to take that same positive result and apply it to the Gambell-Ingra corridor.”

“When you’re building a stroad, you’re building a really bad road that also is a really bad street.”

—Charles Marohn, Founder, Strong Towns

Stroad Warriors

Engineers have a variety of tools for fixing a stroad. They either push it toward road-like mobility or street-like accessibility.

For North Spenard, Kimerer says “Complete Streets” was the watchword for his landscape architects. They were involved in designing transit stops, wayfinding columns, banners, and the color scheme.

Balanced stroads are possible. Marohn likes the Champs-Élysées in Paris, where center lanes move cars quickly while separated edges are for walking and parking. The Esplanade in downtown Chico, California, is similar: fourteen blocks of a through street (a “road”) flanked by frontage roads (or “streets”).

Marohn adds, “I don’t think it’s impossible to design a good stroad, but those are the 0.1 percent exception to the rule.”

A balanced, nuanced approach to transportation must think beyond grabbing as much federal funding as possible to move vehicles at the expense of everything else, according to Kemplen. “It’s more than just moving traffic safely, fast,” he says. “It’s a road that doesn’t force everybody into an automobile because you don’t maintain the sidewalks.”

The 2021 reconstruction of north Spenard Road consolidated driveways, added planters and benches, and installed crosswalks where drivers actually stop for pedestrians in the street.

Kevin Smith Photography | Bettisworth North

End of the Stroad

Fairview has some federal funds to fix its stroad problem. Last February, NeighborWorks Alaska helped the community obtain a $537,660 grant under the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program. The 2021 infrastructure package set aside money for environmental justice, such as undoing the rift that split Fairview in the ‘60s.

Hajduk explains, “This is the first federal program of its kind where the federal government has acknowledged that transportation decisions and infrastructure like this were intentionally built to disenfranchise already disadvantaged communities.”

Out of forty-five successful applicants, Fairview was one of four non-governmental organizations awarded a grant. Also, the Anchorage Assembly appropriated a 20 percent match, for a total of $672,000.

The money is meant to give residents a voice in the state’s Seward-Glenn Connection Project, which has the stated goals of improving regional travel between the highways while also adding to livability and local travel in surrounding neighborhoods.

Hajduk says, “We want to make sure our efforts are collaborative and integrated, so the planning that we’ll do with the community-led vision can feed into that and ultimately move it further down the line.”

Past concepts for a Gambell Steet-Ingra Street remedy have included a cut-and-cover trench or an elevated freeway. “Both of those are horrible ideas,” in Marohn’s opinion. Based on what he saw that morning during his walking tour, “You do not have the traffic volume to justify anything more than taking out two lanes.”

Marohn acknowledges that constricting highway-to-highway traffic would inconvenience commuters. However, he sees “living out on the edge” as a lifestyle subsidized by the inconvenience of urban residents.

Convenience, on the other hand, drives economic vitality. Cloud says, “Pedestrians, if they’re out walking, they’re going to spend more money. If you take more time, you’re window shopping, you can pop in these shops.”

Reconnecting Fairview benefits the whole city, in Kemplen’s view, because a vibrant neighborhood attracts private capital and adds value to adjoining land uses.

“Why can’t we identify streets that are designed around the people?” he asks. “Public right-of-way is for all of us.”

“You walk on Gambell Street, a 4-foot-wide sidewalk… If you’re not scared-the-bejeezus-out-of, you’re not a human being!”

—Allen Kemplen, President, Fairview Community Council

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Welcome to the June 2024 issue, which features our annual Transportation Special Section. We've paired it this year with a focus on the Pacific Northwest and Hawai'i, as Alaska has close ties to both that reach far beyond lines of transportation. Even further out past our Pacific Ocean compatriots and our Canadian neighbors to the east, Alaska's reach extends to India and Singapore. Enjoy this issue that explores many of Alaska's far-flung business dealings.
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