If it looks like new streets in the city of Greensboro are getting narrower in coming years, it won’t be an optical illusion.
The city is putting new streets on a diet.
Beginning Jan. 1, the minimum width of streets will drop, a move that should rein in the speed of traffic and make walking more comfortable and pleasant.
The most significant change might be on typical neighborhood streets, where the minimum width will drop from 30 feet to 26 feet.
That might seem like a subtle change, but street width can have significant effects on the overall feel of a neighborhood.
The wider a street, the faster cars go. That’s a big factor in what traffic engineers call the “design speed” of a road, along with other factors such as the distance between intersections and whether parking is allowed.
Narrower streets also can create a more intimate neighborhood feel. Neighborhoods developed before World War II typically have narrower streets than areas built in more recent decades, and they typically are much more inviting for pedestrians.
The changes, which the City Council unanimously approved, came as transportation officials decided the old street design rules were outdated.
The city’s old standards hadn’t been changed in several decades, said Adam Fischer, engineering manager for the transportation department. They no longer reflected current thinking about how streets should function.
The city frequently receives complaints about speeding on residential streets, he said. The problem is that many streets are designed for speeds of 40 mph.
Transportation officials wanted to reduce that speed without using less natural techniques such as speed bumps.
If you want to slow traffic, design is more important than signs.
“We’re building in traffic calming,” Fischer said. “We’ve found that putting speed limit signs up is not really effective.”
The new rules set a minimum, not a requirement. They don’t prevent developers from building wider streets if they choose, but narrower streets cost less money.
There already are some examples of recent streets built to the narrower width.
The new Willow Oaks development, which replaced the Morningside Homes public housing complex, has narrower streets, allowed because it was built under special design standards for developments aiming for a traditional neighborhood feel.
Neighborhood streets aren’t the only ones affected by the changes. The new standards aim to lower the design speeds of more heavily traveled roads, as well.
The new rules have the support of the development community, said Marlene Sanford, president of the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition.
The changes won’t mean much for the city’s existing street network.
It’s far too expensive to go back and change the width of current streets, although that could come into play if a street receives a major redesign.
Still, with the city continually adding population, the new rules could have a major say in the way the next several decades of neighborhoods look and feel.
And in conjunction with other efforts, such as an increased emphasis on sidewalks and trails, the city could become a friendlier place for pedestrians, whether they’re walking to get somewhere or just walking to walk.
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