How Wide Is My Roadway?
(or, From Curb to Shining Curb)


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 "highway 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 that 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 also 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, D.C. 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 memorable town in Europe or maybe New England that had a lasting impression on you? Chances are that the community that you remember so fondly had the type of narrow, meandering cobbled streets that County of San Diego Planning Commissioner David Krietzer refers to as "storybook." Land planner Edward McMahon points out that preservation-minded cities like Charleston, South Carolina and Annapolis, Maryland are among North America's leading tourism designations because they are preserving their "neo-traditional" buildings and narrow streets. The Amish area of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has seen tourism suffer due to sprawling developments with wide streets surrounding the older villages.

Yet, many cities in Southern California still 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 must dedicate land and pay for half of a 36-foot road with curb, gutters and sidewalks. This additional cost can easily increase the cost of the remodel by $20,000 or more.

What do these numbers mean? Well, they mean that in the not-too-distant future, all of Carlsbad's residential roads will be roughly twice as wide as Highland Drive, Skyline Road and Sunnyhill Drive 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 that is now 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:

  • Street planning should relate to overall community planning.
  • Residential streets serving 25 lots or less could safely be 24 feet wide.
  • Design criteria that requires roads to be flatter and straighter prevents roads from following the natural terrain and causes the destruction of natural features.
  • Streets which are wider than necessary are more expensive to maintain.
  • Excessively wide streets induce cars to speed.
  • Excessively wide streets deplete rainfall from groundwater basins.
  • Excessively wide streets increase urban runoff (this, by the way, contributes to the erosion of coastal bluffs in the San Diego area).
  • 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.
  • 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 for urban areas with parking bays or other off-street parking provisions.

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

  Gary Piro is the owner of Piro Engineering in San Marcos and a former planning commissioner for the 5th Supervisorial District of the County of San Diego