Defining the Worst Type of Street Design

Part street, part road, 'stroads' are unsafe, ugly, and bad for local economies.

Sometimes, you see something in the world that you want to talk about and you realize there isn't really a name for it. So you have to make one up.

That's the situation Chuck Marohn found himself in when looking at the four- and-six-lane-wide thoroughfares, built for speed but also lined with retail and residential developments and all the intersections those entail.

Marohn, a self-described "recovering traffic engineer" and founder of the nonprofit Strong Towns, observed this thing spreading unchecked through suburban and rural America. It was neither fish nor fowl, neither street nor road. It was a strange mutant creature he decided to call a "stroad":

The STROAD design -- a street/road hybrid -- is the futon of transportation alternatives. Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a STROAD moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment. The result is an expensive highway and a declining tax base.

Marohn says he coined the term in 2011 to wake up the people who design America's roads. "I really was writing it as a way to push back at the engineering profession and get my fellow engineers to think about the bizarre things they're building," says Marohn. That was why he initially wrote the word in that annoying all-cap style, which he eventually dropped. "I figured engineers would read it and wonder, what was it an acronym for?" he says, laughing.

While Marohn came up with the neologism partly in a spirit of fun, he considers stroads a deadly serious problem. Not only are they dangerous and aesthetically repugnant, he argues that they are economically destructive as well. They don't provide the swift, efficient mobility that is the greatest economic benefit of a good road, and they simultaneously fail to deliver the enduring value of a good street -- which fosters community, good architecture, and financial resilience at the lowest possible cost.

Instead, stroads create hideous, inefficient, and disposable environments that quickly lose value. Marohn puts it this way:

If you want to … 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.

Since Marohn was targeting the engineering community with his coinage, he was a bit surprised when some advocates for more human-friendly urban street design picked up on the word and started using it. Stroad has even made it into the Urban Dictionary. He isn't unhappy about that, but he still thinks that the real change needs to happen among the people who are responsible for building the streets and roads of the nation’s communities. "I'd like to see 'stroad' in engineering textbooks," he says. That would signal a shift in awareness.

So far, the movement in that direction has been "baby steps," Marohn says. "I don't see an acknowledgment from the engineering profession that high-speed automobiles and human beings shouldn’t be in the same place," he says. At the same time, economically stressed rural communities continue to build stroads, especially in proximity to big highways, in the hopes of short-term economic gain. "There’s no real constituency for stopping that kind of really bad development," he says.

Stroad is not a pretty word. It isn't supposed to be. Marohn says its unwieldiness is part of the point. It's an ugly word that describes an ugly thing, one that is unfitted for human use in so many different ways.

"It's not a word you would ever use in a loving relationship. 'Oh, let’s meet out on the stroad,'" he says, laughing. "You wouldn’t ever say that."

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.