Smart codes: The roads less traveled

Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
          -- Robert Frost (1874 - 1963)

by Gary Piro

t never ceases to amaze me how city engineers can require developers to build new residential streets to “freeway design” standards, then later be perplexed why drivers speed on these roads. Cities that use the old “one size fits all” approach to road standards don't understand that the standards we have been using since the 1960s were designed by traffic engineers whose sole responsibility was to provide for the movement of traffic in greater volumes or at greater speeds.

    As stated in Performance Streets, (Bucks County, 1980), residential streets are eventually used for a variety of purposes for which they were not designed, such as a direct auto access for the occupant to his home; a visual setting for residents; an entryway for each house; a pedestrian circulation system; a community meeting area and a play area (whether one likes it or not) for the children.

    Almost without exception, neighborhoods that have narrow meandering streets are more desirable to live in than neighborhoods that have excessively wide and straight streets. Areas like Beacon Hill in Boston, Mill Valley in San Francisco and Georgetown in Washington, DC have extremely narrow streets and are some of this country's most prestigious places to live. In San Diego, areas with predominantly narrow streets like “Olde” Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla are some of our most desirable and expensive communities to live in.

    Think about it. Have you ever been to a charming little village in Europe or New England that left a lasting impression? Chances are, that community had the “meandering” cobbled streets that Dave Krietzer of the San Diego County Planning Commission refers to as “storybook.” In fact, land planner Edward McMahon has stated that cities that have returned to “neo-traditional” small town formats with narrow streets, such as Annapolis, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia, are thriving tourist areas; areas like the Amish country in Pennsylvania are suffering due to sprawling developments with excessively wide roads surrounding the older villages. Still, many cities in Southern California stick tenaciously to requirements of 36-foot-wide roadways with adjacent curb, gutter and sidewalk on new developments.

    As Randall Arendt of the Urban Land Institute points out, this road standard appears to have been designed for the “100 year party.” The City of Carlsbad has even taken these road standard requirements up a notch. For the past few years, they have been implementing San Diego County's most aggressive policy of widening roads in existing residential areas. Their regulation says that applicants applying for a remodel permit where the amount of the construction exceeds $50,000.00 must dedicate land and pay for half of a 36-foot road with curb, gutters and sidewalks.

    What do these numbers mean? Well, they mean that, in the not to distant future, all of Carlsbad's residential roads will be roughly twice as wide as Highland, Skyline and Sunnyhill which, coincidentally, are three of Carlsbad's most exclusive streets to live on.

    This ordinance is a huge mistake on many levels. But the biggest tragedy is the irreparable damage it will do to Carlsbad's community character. Although certain small areas like “the downtown village” are exempt from this ordinance and there is an “unwritten” waiver on Highland, the area which is currently known as “Olde Carlsbad” will have to be renamed “The Community Formerly Known as Olde Carlsbad” when the roads are completed.

    Neal Pierce of the National Journal points out that there is an “Asphalt Rebellion” bubbling up across the country. Vermont has a new statute that all but repeals these standards. Phoenix is relaxing minimum road width from 34 feet to 28 feet and even AASHTO is talking modifications. Mark Steele of the City of San Diego Planning Commission points out that Portland (the darling of the Smart Growth proponents) has gone to 28-foot streets.

    To fulfill a need to provide a practical set of standards for residential streets, in 1986 The American Society of Civil Engineers, in cooperation with the National Association of Homebuilders and the Urban Land Institute, published Residential Streets. This publication had the following observations about the residential street design:

  1. Street planning should relate to overall community planning.
  2. Residential streets serving 25 lots or less could safely be 24 feet wide.
  3. Design criteria that requires roads to be flatter and straighter prevents roads from following the natural terrain and causes the destruction of natural features.
  4. Streets that are wider than necessary are more expensive to maintain.
  5. Excessively wide streets induce cars to speed.
  6. Excessively wide streets deplete rainfall from groundwater basins.
  7. Excessively wide streets increase urban runoff (this, by the way is contributes to the erosion of coastal bluffs in the San Diego area).
  8. Streets with excessive on-street parking induce homeowners to park cars on the street rather than in garages. Excessive on street parking contiguous to curb and sidewalks are dangerous for children who dart out from behind parked cars.
  9. Excessive road requirements increase the cost of homes.

    According to Michael Southworth, PhD, and Eran Ben-Joseph, PhD, in their book Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, a rethinking of suburban street standards is needed today to create a more cohesive, livable and energy-efficient communities and metropolitan areas. This is already taking place in many parts of the San Diego area.

    The City of San Diego has been meeting to consider revisions to its design manual that will reduce street and parkway widths. Solana Beach and Del Mar have flexible standards in established residential neighborhoods. The County of San Diego is now allowing 24 foot “private streets” with flexible parking location design in their urban areas and planned residential developments.

    Let's hope that Carlsbad and the other “by-the-book” cities join the Asphalt Rebellion before they destroy the character of our communities.

    Dear Reader,

    On April 3, the City of Carlsbad staff came before the Carlsbad City Council with a proposal to significantly reduce all of their road width requirements on new residential subdivisions. They call the proposal the “Livable Streets” program and have made that the first step in a “Livable Neighborhoods” agenda.

    The city engineer, Lloyd Hubbs, advised me that this was caused as a result of the Citizens for Preservation of Olde Carlsbad, for which I was honored to be the cofounder and spokesman 18 months ago. The proposal will reduce all new roads by a minimum of 6 feet, and in existing neighborhoods the width can be as low as 18 feet. I thought I would send out this editorial that started the whole movement off.

    Gary Piro

    Mr. Piro is a former County Planning Commissioner and the owner of a civil engineering and land-planning firm in San Marcos. Email: