In a transportation infrastructure, roads and streets play a different economic role.

What’s the Economic Difference Between a Street and a Road?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    May 23, 2014    •    721 Views

Our story starts outside of Cleveland during the beginning of the 20th century. With the 4,000 acres that Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen purchased from the Society of Shakers, the 2 brothers decided to create a planned suburban community. Combining artificial lakes, price-grouped homes, romantic architecture that mimicked wealth, and land set aside for parks, they established a suburban prototype. Shaker Heights was its name.

As suburban communities like Shaker Heights multiplied during the 1920s, the
 US government decided to rationalize its road
 system. They proclaimed that east-west roads would receive even numbers, those sending traffic north-south 
would end in odd digits, and all transcontinental routes 
would be enumerated in multiples of ten.

The new roads that were built were very different from our town and city streets.

Somewhat like the canals and railroads that increasingly crisscrossed the US during the 19th century, each of the roads we built was designed to connect 2 points. In the 19th century, a US transportation infrastructure fueled the regional specialization that let us all do what we were best at. The North could manufacture. The Midwest could grow grain, and the South, cotton. There was lots more going on but you get the picture. Then during the 20th century, composed of roads that connected distant towns and cities, an interstate highway system was the next step.

Listening to an hour of Econtalk during my 4 mile walk today, I learned that a street is very different from a road. Streets are local. Encouraging economic activity, streets accommodate walkers and bikers and retail establishments. Not too wide so they can be easily crossed, streets are easy to navigate. Their design facilitates commerce, buoys economic activity and generates human interaction. As a home to stores that residents can easily access, streets capture local value.

According to Charles Marohn, when we respond to our D+ infrastructure grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, we should know the difference between a road and a street:

Our bottom line? The design of roads and streets can create or destroy economic incentives. Built inappropriately, a street can become a stroad. Do you have any stroads nearby? Please let us know in a comment.

Sources and Resources: A good econtalk like today’s can make a long walk such a pleasure. I also recommend the report from the American Society of Civil Engineers and do take a look at how federal stimulus money was spent to identify and assess specific street and road projects.


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