Beware the Stroad

My Chronicle column this week is on urban planning, good and bad.

Streets and Roads Essential, but Avoid the Dreaded Stroad, The Chronicle, 3 February 2015

What’s the difference between a street and a road? According to planner Charles Marohn, the answer is fundamental to good urban design.

As Marohn sees it, roads get us quickly from one place to another. Streets are where people stroll and shopfronts flourish.

We should think of roads like train lines for cars. They have plenty of lanes, sweeping curves and a high speed limit. Engineers love them.

Streets are where humanity flourishes. Streets need wide footpaths, with easy access for bicycles and wheelchairs. The traffic is slower, which keeps pedestrians safer and allows drivers to stop when they see an interesting store. A good street captures economic value and builds social capital. Communities love them.

We need both roads and streets. But the problem with many cities around the world is that their thoroughfares have become ‘stroads’. On a stroad, commuters are annoyed that they’re stuck in traffic, while the pedestrians don’t want to linger. Think Parramatta Road in Sydney, or Sydney Road in Melbourne.

Which brings me to our city. Walter Burley Griffin said of Canberra that he had ‘planned an ideal city, a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future’. But the Griffins could never have anticipated that a few hundred kilometres down the road from his Chicago office, Henry Ford’s incursions into mass production would have a profound impact on city planning for the next century.

When the Griffins designed Canberra in 1911, Australia had one car for every 400 people. Now, we have nearly as many cars as people. The distinction between streets and roads didn’t matter a century ago. Now, it’s fundamental.

In terms of roads, the former Federal Government and the ACT Government invested $288 million in the Majura Parkway – major arterial that will shorten commuting times.

But our city has also benefited from the ACT Government’s initiatives that have breathed new life into streets such as Bunda and Childers Streets in the city. In Lonsdale Street, Braddon – just around the corner from my office – good urban design is creating a street where businesses profit and locals stroll.

Canberra needs both what Charles Marohn would call ‘streets’ and ‘roads’ – as well as a good mix of bikes, buses and light rail. With smart design, we can keep commuting times short, create liveable urban spaces, and avoid the dreaded stroad.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser, and his website is

Postscript: For a recent interview with Charles Marohn, see his conversation on EconTalk.

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