Wide Residential Streets Are Dangerous. Why Are They So Common?

Seattle's 2nd Avenue NW is just 16 feet across, much narrower -- and safer -- than the typical residential street. Photo: Dave Amos.
Seattle's 2nd Avenue NW is just 16 feet across, much narrower -- and safer -- than the typical residential street. Photo: Dave Amos.

Ever wonder why so many residential streets are so wide even though they only see a trickle of car traffic?

Dave Amos, a doctoral student at the U.C. Berkeley College of Environmental Design, has been looking into it. The reason, as with so many things, goes back to car-centric engineering standards. Residential streets have highway-like dimensions because engineers thought wide, straight streets were safer. But in a neighborhood context, streets like that just encourage speeding and increase the risk of serious traffic injuries.

Narrower streets lead to safer, more cautious driving behavior. The trouble is that in many cities, the excess street width is now used for parking. So Amos went out and counted the number of cars parked on residential streets in Eugene, Oregon. He found that even in the more compact neighborhoods, the cars parked on the street could be accommodated in garages and driveways.

Those results won’t apply in every neighborhood, but in many places it could be a useful exercise to help make the case for narrower, safer residential streets, like Amos does in this video:

More recommended reading today: Systemic Failure considers the problems with evacuation plans that rely completely on cars and highways. And Austin on Your Feet looks at why Austin’s West Campus succeeds as an urban neighborhood.

  • wklis

    Wide streets are also more expensive to maintain.

  • knifeforkspoon

    This is missing the huge influence local fire departments have on street widths. The local fire department here demands a 26′ clear zone on all streets.

  • Vooch

    indeed, as a young architect in the early 1980s designing developments along (semi) new urbanist principles; it was appalling the arguments made for insanely wide residential streets:

    1) There was the Fire Truck canard.

    2) The ol’ red herring of 2 cars going opposite directions meeting each other.

    3) My favorite was the ‘how will a moving van turn around ?’

    These old arguments are one reason the ex-urbs are ‘tomorrow’s ghettos’

  • Even if there’s on-street parking, there’s no reason for the entire roadway to be paved to 36′, especially at corners. More parking bays, especially with different/permeable surfaces, would go a long way toward alleviating the problem by visually narrowing the roads, especially when no one is parked.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    Don’t forget guest parking and holding fallen snow from plows. I see many garages used for storage so the residents park on the driveway and their guests park on the street.

  • Vooch

    holding plowed snow ?

    that’s a good one, never heard that one before, but it’s a winner too. ( because of course plowed snow couldn’t possible be put on grass )

  • Patrick Devine

    Just like the “Sorriest Bus Stop in America” competition, maybe we should have a “Most Egregiously Wide Residential Street” competition. We have some streets like this in my neighborhood that just make you shake your head. The safest thing to do would be to grind up half the street and just give that land back to homeowners.

  • Jason

    I live on a residential street that the Google Maps measuring tool says is 50 feet wide. I know that’s not the most exact way of measuring things so I’ll add this: nominally the street is one lane of parking and one travel lane each direction, but is so absurdly wide that if a car double parks next to a parked car it’s still possible for a third card to comfortably proceed forward without at all going over the double yellow line in the middle of the street.

  • Jason

    “We need to have wide streets because fire trucks are huge.”

    “Well, why do we need such huge fire trucks?”

    “Why do you want people’s houses to burn down?!?!”

    That’s really all it is at this point, a circular logic dead-end where fire trucks were built that huge because we had the roads to accommodate that and now we use having those trucks as the justification for keeping roads to accommodate them.

  • Frank Kotter

    Provo. It can only be Provo

  • Haggie

    In my town we have “residential” streets with 35mph speed limits that are divided four lanes that are as wide as a major freeway. No sidewalks or crosswalks or bike lanes for miles. Antithetical to anything but auto traffic. I have to set my cruise control to prevent going 20-30 mph over the limit.

  • thielges

    We have many excessively wide streets in San Jose built in the late 50s and 60s while our local version of Robert Moses tried to create an autotopia. There are narrow streets lined with turn of the century Victorians widens to triple the width on either side clearly showing the city had intended to turn that quiet street into a busy thoroughfare (demolishing those old Vics in the process).

    Here’s another case where the city had intended to turn Campbell Ave. into a broad boulevard. But the neighboring city of Campbell to the east had different plans. The busy boulevard never occurred and we’re left with a freakishly 67 feet wide street on the blocks just east of Meridian! : https://www.google.com/maps/@37.2871126,-121.9145717,136m/data=!3m1!1e3

  • Jason

    It’s Santa Monica.

  • Anne A

    We have some studies in contrast in my neighborhood. Some of the wider residential streets are speedways, while narrower 2-way streets like this have much slower traffic. There are usually a lot more cars parked on the street here, so that it’s only possible for traffic to go in one direction, while cars going in the other direction have to wait for an opening.
    https://www.google.com/maps/@41.7194592,-87.6771949,3a,60y,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sm3n4oQshxUI-7aCezl5Exg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  • EJ

    Sometimes there are historical reasons for unnaturally wide streets. There’s a section of Shattuck avenue in Berkeley,CA that’s absurdly wide because it once had six streetcar tracks running down it. Down the coast in Santa Cruz there are a few very wide, straight streets in the middle of quiet residential areas. When I lived there I was told they were built during WWII to serve as emergency runways for aircraft, but that may be an urban legend.

  • Patrick94GSR .

    One problem in many residential areas at least where I live, among single-family homes with attached garages, is that many people have so much JUNK that they pile it up in their garages, and then park on the driveway. And then they might have more than 2 cars at the household (or a single wide driveway with more than one car), and instead of playing car jockey every day, one or more cars just sit on the street. We have streets in my neighborhood that are 36 feet wide, and when cars are parked on the street directly across from each other or nearly so, it makes 2-way traffic impossible. Even worse is when it happens on a curving road, because both motorists and cyclists can’t see who is coming from the other direction around the curve.

  • Frank Kotter

    Wow, I just strolled around LA in ‘Earth’. I’ll just leave it at that, ‘wow’

  • J. Geoff Rove

    At some point the parkway gets full of snow in some places and the curbside mailboxes are wrecked.

  • Vooch

    hilarious that every trivial challenge in the ex-urbs is solved by making streets and parking craters bigger & bigger

  • onlinenetizen

    where i live, the clear zone is 32′. not sure why they need a 10 story ladder truck in a residential street

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