Meta-Note: The more observant among you have noticed I put a new section up on the blog. It’s called RC Advice, and it’s mostly just a place you can ask me for questions, advice, a friendly ear or whatever. I’m going to answer every comment in there at least until it gets time consuming enough that I can’t keep up with it. I have it set so when I post in there you won’t get an extra email, so unless I messed something up it shouldn’t be bothering you when you aren’t in need of it.
Great piece. I appreciate the time it took to break down these arguments. That said, I am not sure that you picked the right target in Strong Towns, who are really not your typical New Urbanists. I suspect that your case against them has something to do with your aesthetic distaste for density and urban living. And that may be somewhat warranted, as lots of urbanism boosters foster a thinly veiled distaste for rural and suburban living. But again, I do not think that is what Strong Towns is going for. My reading of Strong Towns is not “cities good; everything else bad.” I don't even think that they are anti-car. Rather, I think that they are advocating a move from exurban sprawl to something resembling old-fashioned inner-ring suburbs and small towns with charming Main Streets.
The exurban sprawl issue is where the case against stroads comes in and it is a particularly confusing concept. Here is a pretty easy way to know if you are on a stroad. If you go down to the commercial district to run visit two stores that are exactly across from each other on opposite sides of the street/road, how would you get from the first to the second? If the answer is ‘walk across,’ then you are on a street. If the answer is ‘get in your car, drive away from your destination and find somewhere you can make a u-turn, then drive back and pull into the parking lot,’ then you are on a stroad.
Part of the reason why you cannot suss out a clear position on density is that they do not see density as something that ought to be determined or prescribed by policy. A place should be as dense as it needs to be to support the economic vitality and financial health of the place. One of Marohn’s big crusades is against the need for local governments to endlessly issue debt that it can never pay off. The reason that happens is because many of cities and towns have way more infrastructure than they can maintain given their tax base. This ties back to stroads, which require all the commercially viable businesses to be located over an unnecessarily large area, which necessitates more capex and more operating expenses, which make these places not economically viable in the long run.
You were right to start this with a discussion of preferences, but preferences are part of the problem. People want to live in nicer, more pleasant neighbourhoods than they can afford, so they try to mimic nicer locations with land-use regulations. That works for a while, but eventually the bills come due and the people with means have moved on to the next new housing development or shopping complex.
I'm very sympathetic to the demands of people who like walkability, although only to a certain extent - I cycle, and I much prefer wide roads that give cars plenty of room to pass to narrow roads where I accidentally back up traffic. I think the ideal situation was a town I once lived in called Stevenage in the UK, which had an elaborate network of underpasses that allowed cyclists and pedestrians to pretty much go anywhere in the town without having to cross roads. However, the entire place was built in the 1960s (and everyone hates it and thinks its ugly), so I don't think it's really practical to retrofit those into somewhere else.
I basically agree with you that the best solution is to have lots of different types of community to meet different needs, I think it makes sense to try to make city centres walkable since you're most of the way there already and that's usually what city people like, but you shouldn't forget that there's a need for access from outside the city. I do think the concept of having uncrossable roads is a really bad idea, it's nice to have pedestrian access for those times when its relevant.
I can kind of see what they're doing with the road/street distinction, the location does mean they have different connotations, but in my experience it can be very effective to have "roads" going through cities to separate traffic, as long as there's a way to go around them.
FWIW, I do agree with the Stroaders that pedestrian overpasses are a poor solution to the problem of pedestrians trying to cross major highways. Of course, a poor solution is better than none, but still, overpasses are hard to navigate for people with bicycles, wheelchairs, strollers, and pretty much anyone else who isn't an athletic power jogger. Obviously major high-speed highways are required for transportation, but IMO putting them in the middle of your residential/retail area is not a great idea.
This really is a warning that people passionate about any 'cause' don't necessarily think dispassionately.
Whether a libertarian approach might work really depends on the stability of the equilibrium ie for an equilibrium solution to emerge conditions need to be fairly stable. At a social/cultural scale that hasn't really been the case for built metropolitan infrastructure for say 100 years or more. Where I live trams were a big thing up through the '50s and the suburbs developed around them. Then cars got cheap and prevalent and suburban development changed accordingly. Now that land availability is constrained by geography (and travel times), metro land is rapidly rising in price and higher density living is arising and dense public transport networks are being promoted by the new residents. etc etc etc. Sometimes it pays to have 'far sighted' people plan ahead. Note, most 'Planners' are people who administer regulation ie there is no selection for 'far sighted' people in their profession.
Well researched piece. Nice job.
I think the libertarian solution is the correct solution. This is an issue of disagreements about land and road use. I believe zoning laws have a tendency to create districts that don't lend themselves to being walkable. For example, there are a ton of houses near me. I'm certain you can't put a starbucks where the houses are and you probably can't build an apartment building. Therefore, it is difficult for me to walk to a Starbucks regardless of the roads.
There are probably many people in this movement who would move to neighborhoods or areas that were as they imagine. If government regulation and control of roads restricts their ability to do so or increases the price of existing housing in this type of area, then they have a legitimate grievance. Would the developers follow their weird rules about roads? I'm not sure but they probably wouldn't have highways cutting through them.
Great piece! I think about cities a lot, and how they work, so I’m very interested any talk about that subject.
The first thing that comes to my mind is, why isn’t there an intermediate entity between “street” and “road”? Surely the Strong Towns people don’t expect their walkable streets to just -WHABAM- turn into arterial highways all at once? Capillaries don’t immediately empty into the venae cavae.
I personally am a fan of density in cities *if* it comes with relationships among the residents, and some form of base-level community self-policing, like a neighborhood watch. Where I live (Omaha) there is a consistently vocal cohort who really want a streetcar, even though IMHO the city is not nearly dense enough to justify a streetcar’s existence. Last year, the city compromised by starting a new bus line with larger vehicles, dedicated lanes, and larger stops, the goal being to entice people to move closer to the bus and thereby create walkable, dense neighborhoods spaced approximately one mile apart. It’s probably too early to tell, but in the nine months that the program has been in operation the results have been… meh. Barely anyone rides the new bus. I really wanted the idea to work, but I doubt an efficient bus is enough of a draw to make people want to move into denser neighborhoods, much less build them out of scratch (which is what will have to happen in some parts of the city for the idea to work).
I found your substack from Scott Alexander's and was so impressed that I read everything on it. While there's some things I disagree with, this was the only post that made me question that if posts were fair and coming from a well informed place. Is Strong Towns right? Maybe, maybe not. But this essay doesn't help me decide due to your refusal to engage their arguments on their terms. I think you're being unfair in a few places, which could be from misunderstanding what Strong Towns is about:
1. You question their definition of roads and streets here:
Don’t feel bad; I didn’t know either. If you - like me! - thought that a road was just something you travelled on and a street was a road inside a town, that’s because the dictionary definition of road and street are just as I said - Strong Towns made up the definitions it’s using here and pretends they are normal to try to sell the harder-to-swallow Stroad concept.
They are "normal" within certain communities, including their own (and wikipedia for that matter). These definitions serve their purposes of differentiating between two types of roads. I'd also guess that they're mapping English words on the Dutch terms of Gebiedsontsluitingswegen and Erftoegangswegen , that do have specific legal definitions. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roads_in_the_Netherlands) Strong Towns, and their youtube supporter NotJustBikes, look to the Netherlands for inspiration, so its not surprising to see translations of the terms pop up. Words are tricky and can have multiple meanings. Good for them for clearly defining their terms and sticking to that definition throughout the article. A more general context that doesn't use the terms as narrowly shouldn't factor into the discussion.
2. You criticize them for saying that stroads are bad at moving people quickly but also have cars going too fast.
"For instance, in the quote I provided they simultaneously claim that Stroads are bad at moving cars, but also that cars on Stroads move much too fast."
If a driver spends half their time going 50 mph and half their time going 0 mph sitting at lights, they are traveling at 25mph overall but always going at 50 mph when moving. In practice it'll be considerably less because they are changing speeds due to upcoming lights, lane changes or entering/exiting the "stroad" (and high speeds means that more time is spent slowing and accelerating). This inconsistent speed explains the seeming contradiction between the roads being slow but the cars being too fast.
3. Why do they think freeways are bad?
"No, of course they wouldn’t. But the reasons are very vague here and absolutely reek of hippy logic. For instance, freeways are bad because some guy can make them seem bad while playing a video game"
This is an incredibly unfair way to characterize DoNotEat's youtube videos, which are essentially lectures using a videogame as a visual aid. It's like if they used a diagram to support an argument and you complained that "oh, they can make it seem bad while drawing a picture" or they used a hypothetical example (oh, they make it seem bad while writing short fiction). Does DoNotEat make a strong case against freeways? People should watch the video(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rseaKBPkRPU) and judge for themselves, but your characterization is ridiculous. It's also incomplete. Strong Towns and DoNotEat are specifically talking about urban freeways through city centers in what you're linking to, not freeways in general. The main criticism is that the land used for the freeway displaces a large amount of both homes and businesses and replaces them areas where people don't live or work. This is illustrated by dozens of before/after photos, comparisons between cities or, yes, simulations using a city simulator game.
4. You're missing the central idea of Strong Towns by trying to look at revealed preferences.
"Or here, because they let people choose where to live and it turns out they don’t want to live in ultra-crowded city centers like Strong Towns-type urbanists prefer:"
Strong Towns (and other "walkability" advocates) don't believe you can really choose your home's transportation network, any more than you can choose your school district's curriculum. As described in your linked article, the decision to build a freeway through Rondo was not up to Rondo residents. It was decided by St. Paul suburbanites, using funds from state and federal governments.
But doesn't this reveal a preference for suburbs over places like Rondo? Sure, I guess. But Strong Towns would characterize these suburbs as existing off of federal and state funds and pillaging places like Rondo. In this mindset, someone moving to the suburbs is revealing a preference to be the robber, rather than the robbed and to receive government cash transfers rather than fund them. A critique of Strong Towns should focus on central thesis that car-focused transportation planning create and necessitate these wealth transfers, not that people like receiving them.
As described "by the guy playing a video game", there is often pushback to urban freeways, including in your hometown.
In general, I'd say one of the main issues with your critique is that you are thinking too small and assume Strong Towns is too. This is best illustrated by your characterization of the article that describes pedestrian bridges. The bridge (in their view) is useless without changing the surrounding car-focused infrastructure. This idea is summarized in the articles title: The Myth of Pedestrian Infrastructure in a World of Cars. You're right that the author does not like the pedestrian bridge over the 7 lane highway. But their criticism isn't of the bridge, but of the existence of the 7 lane highway in the first place.
Think of it this way: You homeschool your children, right? You probably have good reasons for this. Imagine if homeschooling was completely illegal in most of the country. You would probably advocate for a change to the education system that allowed homeschooling. You're able to convince the school district to compromise and allow kids to leave school for 1 hour daily to learn math at home. Everyday, you could drive to the school, check in at the school office, withdraw your kids from school, drive home, teach math, then drive back. drop your kids off, fill out more forms in the office, then return home. Would this be a win for homeschooling? Probably not. While it seems a concession to homeschooling, without larger changes it wouldn't really fulfill the goals of any homeschool advocate.
This is the position that Strong Towns often find itself in and critiques should keep that in mind.
> People don’t really think about “distance” in terms of distance - they think about it in terms of travel time. Dropping all town and city speed limits to <20 MPH makes these things farther away in the way that matters to people; that means less people live within a reasonable travel distance from any particular spot in the city. That means, all things the same, that you get less big-box stores and specialty shops.
> I want to live in the suburbs and have the advantages of driving at reasonably high speeds, but that doesn’t mean everyone does. Some people want to live in super-dense urban environments, even if I don’t. I don’t want Strong Towns to be able to force me to drive everywhere at sub-bicycle speeds...
This bit I want to address because I think you're making the assumption that car-dependency is the default and 'normal' way to travel. You're absolutely right that people think of distance in terms of travel time, and will take the fastest and most convenient mode of transport available. That's why I'm confused by the second quote above: you mention the advantages of driving at reasonably high speeds, which just seems to be a roundabout way of saying that, yes, you also want to get to your destination quickly and easily. But why should driving your car fast have to be the best (or only) method for this?
The fact that dropping the speed limits makes car travel less attractive is a feature, not a bug. Walkability advocates don't want to punish people for driving, but to create an environment that facilitates different modes of transport for different purposes in a human-friendly way. One reason that more people don't use bikes is because it's too dangerous with all the cars on the road. City planners give priority to car infrastructure over public transit because the expectation is that everyone is going to drive anyway.
None of this is necessary or expected outside of North America. Suburbs in the Netherlands have easily accessible shopping streets reachable in minutes by bike, which don't need a dozen football fields worth of parking lot as a result. Most people still have cars, which they use for trips to the beach, to visit family in other towns, or to ikea. But it's not always the default mode of transport whenever anyone wants to get anywhere, which is why we don't /have/ to decide how to get pedestrians across freeways, or find a way to fit massive amounts of car traffic from suburbs into cities, or figure out how to get our kids to school when dad needs the car for a business trip, and so on.
I live in a small town in the midwest United States. In kind of sounds like Strong Towns wants to live in a... small town in the midwest United States.
It is super interesting to read about Strong Towns from a perspective of someone who isn’t super into this stuff. I’m quite interested in this stuff, but like many other things it can turn into a bit of an echo chamber.
About streets vs. roads: the current colloquial term for what they call a street is “a mall”. As in shopping mall. The hallways are car free spaces with shops on the sides, for all intents and purposes these are private streets.
You can do a thought experiment. What would it take to let people drive, even slowly, through the middle of a mall? After all sometimes it is convenient to park in front of a shop, right? You would have to delineate a roadway through the middle of a mall, and clear out all the people. You would now have to ask people to look out for cars instead of just shopping around. Cars are loud so talking to other people becomes annoying. It would be hugely disruptive. This thought experiment gives you a feel of the kind of compromise it takes to actually drive cars through a street. (before 1920 or so streets in a city functioned much more like malls today, and it was in fact hugely disruptive when cars showed up).
Now, cars gave us something — a level of mobility that 200 years ago, even the kings and emperors of the world couldn’t dream about. But it is still worth wondering if this compromise is the right one for every single street.
A basic thing of walkable cities is to consciously decide on which streets we are going to drive faster than 20 mph. Most streets would be 20 mph but we would designate a network of streets where you can drive faster, and that comes to within a mile of most homes. This combines most advantages of walkable slow streets (most homes on quiet streets) and mobility by car (you are limited to 20 mph only for the first and last mile or so). This obviously costs you capacity, but that is often more than offset by people now able to walk or ride a bicycle for short trips. This would combine with some changes in zoning, eg. you can open corner stores or cafes on your average suburban lot so more people will have these much closer to their homes.
I think one of the inspirations is basically reverse-engineering how cities like Tokyo work. In many cities (European and Asian) you can get around completely on foot or on bicycle, and if you have to go somewhere too far to walk, you can take some train or metro. And these trains and metros, and buses, actually work well enough, and are clean enough, with “normal people” on them, to casually go to whatever random place in the city you want to go. Or to commute to some job. Metro in particular is able to support large malls with huge catchments.
About what they call “stroads”: this is a quite specific type of streets that has a combination of many lanes, it is lined with businesses, and it has high speed limits (i.e. much more than 30 mph). *This type of street does not exist in many countries outside the US*. I have never driven on a “stroad”. I currently live in New Zealand and the closest approximation over here is a 2 + 2 lane road (plus the obligatory ballooning at intersections) with a speed limit of 50 km/h (30 mph).
Strong Towns calculates the value of a specific street/road by value-per-acre. The recommended VPA there's a specific ratio between the cost of yearly maintenance to how much the city makes off of a property. You would find that the VPA of "stroads" is usually very low, in a way that means that the city can't turn a profit with its inclusion. (the businesses don't pay enough property tax to maintain a stroad. they often even receive some tax subsidies from the city in order to start the business)
BUT, strong towns is not even strongly advocating of getting rid of "straods". It's talking about making sure that the ratio is much higher than the current "acceptable" ratio. If you have a specific stroad that can do that, People will leave it and move to a lower hanging fruit.
If we assume the reasons given for flight to the suburbs are true. Once suburban population growth causes commute times become excessive and prices to rise, according to this model people should have moved back to the city centers. Many cities in the north east (US) are easily traversed on foot or have accessible mass transportation, but even before covid people weren't moving back. While some of their criticisms of the modern city maybe valid, especially a sense of community, I tend to believe that crime, corruption, and economics are bigger factors.
In isolation, the "easy win" might be a good thing from a liberty perspective. But live and let live really isn't an option. Strong Towns people, if they get a chance, won't let you have those less-dense suburbs. One of their basic premises is that such suburban development is not viable; the infrastructure maintenance costs are deferred and when they come due, tax revenues are orders of magnitude too small to cover them and the suburb is left to decay while a new suburb is then built using the same model.
So while parking minimums, lot-size minimums, street width minimums and single-family-detached-only zoning may be offense to liberty, they serve as an important bulwark against Strong Towns and other urbanists who would force us all into tiny apartments with no cars. They would do this with various well-known tools such as Urban Growth Boundaries (sorry, can't build a new less-dense suburb out in farmland), parking maximums, street-width maximums and pedestrian-only streets, zero-setback requirements, etc. Freedom isn't an option; there's no one to accept the bargain "live and let live" (if one group did, the coercive proposals could just come from another group) and no one who could be trusted to stick to it even if there was.
I grew up in dense, walkable, and fairly poor neighbourhoods, generally right in the city (not suburban). I don't have a problem with density, provided it doesn't come with other problems, as it often does. Yet you class it as a downside in itself.
I also grew up in Canada, where people are stereotypically more law abiding. So we weren't plagued with careless drivers causing pedestrian deaths and injuries, or the crime that I suspect most Americans think of when they think of dense city neighbourhoods.
During covid, I was glad that I now live in a single family house with its very own lot - no common entrances, or other reason to come within 6 feet of my neighbours. But that's a very unusual feeling for me. About the only downside to density in itself in normal conditions is noise, and it's easy enough to get used to noise and basically stop being disturbed by it. (In my teens, I lived in an apartment building on the same intersection as the local fire hall; I soon became able to sleep through fire trucks and their sirens.)