Making Streets


Washington Street in the middle of the historic city of Alexandria, VA. Image credit: Author

Rendering of the town of Edmonston’s main street, Decatur Street, with rain gardens (landscaped areas that filter water naturally through the ground); wind-powered LED street lights; maple, elm, sycamore, and oak trees; sidewalks constructed of porous pavers; bike lanes; and narrower pavement width. Image courtesy of Town of Edmonston, MD.


What’s the difference between a street and a road? It’s not a trick question. It makes all the social, cultural, economic and environmental difference in the world whether that linear pathway threading through a neighborhood is a street or a road. Roads are for vehicles, and we certainly need them to connect one place to another efficiently, but streets serve far more than mobility and, curiously, are best when inefficient and not conducive to speed.

A narrow focus on vehicle “throughput” has led too many jurisdictions to whittle away at the qualities that make streets—pedestrians, cyclists, shoppers, trees—until there’s nothing left but roads. Engineers are constantly trying to solve the problem of congestion. They add lanes (though evidence suggests increasing lanes only increases congestion), eliminate street parking, increase speeds, and coordinate stoplights to favor vehicles. Eventually, all that focus on speed and efficiency supersedes everything else.

Yet there are good examples of the opposite, of roads turning into streets. The George Washington Memorial Parkway winds along the Virginia banks of the Potomac River. Designed first to connect Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, with his namesake city, it now continues farther upriver to the Capital Beltway, which is the very model of a major modern road mess. The George Washington Memorial Parkway runs right through the historic city of Alexandria, which is where its name changes to Washington Street—and also where the road becomes a street. Traffic lights at the southern and northern edges of Alexandria mark the start of Washington Street, its brick sidewalks lined with trees, shops, apartments, and people. Alexandria’s 18th century streets were sufficiently resistant to speed—and its citizens sufficiently resistant to destructive forms of progress—to keep efficiency away. Washington Street was there long before cars were invented, and planners rightly respected its seniority.

Edmonston, Maryland (population not quite 1,500), sits halfway around the Capital Beltway from Alexandria. Its main street was not paved until the 1940s, and as the town grew, it was repeatedly widened until that main street became a main road, and the citizens realized they needed to make a change. Now Decatur Street is a green street, the first of its kind in Maryland, with rain gardens, sidewalks, traffic calming, LED street-lighting, and bike lanes. This is improving water quality, saving energy, and reducing risk to pedestrians, but it’s doing so much more than that. Decatur Street is now a civic place, instead of a traffic corridor.

Edmonston’s citizens can now stroll, parade, demonstrate, air grievances, argue and gossip on Decatur Street. That’s what separates streets from roads. As the Edmonston website says, “We think that this project is the responsible thing to do. But we also think that if our little working class town can accomplish a project like this, other municipalities—of any size—can and should do them too.”