I was driving into the city on Farmington Avenue a week ago, watching the SUV in front of me pass a snowplow on the right and then cut off a bus. And I wondered, as I often have, whether there was something about this particular street that encourages bad driving. Is there a bad driving contest held there every Thursday that I don't know about? But then, how could you tell?
Farmington Avenue from West Hartford to downtown Hartford ought to thrive. It's got thousands of nearby residents, major companies, fine churches, many good businesses. Yet, while it endures, it doesn't thrive.
Could that be because it is a "stroad?"
Stroad is a fairly new word created by planner-engineer-activist Charles Marohn, founder of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns, to describe four- or six-lane-wide thoroughfares that are neither street nor road and don't work well as either. In a recent interview in The Atlantic Cities, he described this street/road hybrid as the "futon of transportation alternatives."
"Where a futon is a piece of furniture that serves both as an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, a stroad moves cars at speeds too slow to get around efficiently but too fast to support productive private sector investment," he said. If multilane traffic is moving at 30 to 50 mph, as it does on Farmington Avenue, you don't get high-speed, efficient travel and you don't get the kind of pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing environment that is conducive to economic and residential development.
Farmington Avenue wasn't built this way; its makeshift four-lane design is what was left after the trolley was eliminated many decades ago. Is there a way to make it better?
Urban planner Toni Gold, who lives in the West End not far from the avenue, has been talking about this for years, advocating dramatic changes. "I'd change all the intersections to roundabouts, particularly at Sisson, Sigourney and Woodland. I'd built a bike lane, possibly one on each side of the street, at the same level as the sidewalk. I'd have diagonal parking in the retail areas. I'd let the cars have what's left."
So imagine. There would be one lane of auto traffic each way. The speed limit would be 15 to 20 mph, but cars wouldn't have to stop, because of the roundabouts, so overall travel time wouldn't be much different. Drivers would have to look pedestrians in the eye, a safety enhancement. One part of Farmington Avenue that is thriving — in West Hartford Center — has one lane of traffic each way and diagonal parking.
On the other hand, West Hartford recently redid a section of the avenue between Trout Brook Drive and Whiting Lane, with medians, which are hard to see at night, and curb extensions, which make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street but more challenging for bicyclists. It looks nice, but the design is timid — disappointingly pedestrian.
What Toni — and I — would really like to see is a modern trolley brought back. There is no better way to move large numbers of people in an urban corridor.
That's Connecticut dreaming. Is there anything that might actually happen in our lifetimes?
I think so. Hartford is rezoning its commercial areas, and could, by requiring good mixed-use, multi-story density along the avenue, and disallowing wasted space such as drive-throughs or front-field parking lots, encourage the kind of development that would make the avenue sing. West Hartford might consider following suit.
Also, the Farmington Avenue Alliance — residents, business owners and others — have been working since 1996 on a major streetscape plan for the avenue. It's been on hold pending completion of the MDC sewer upgrade project. Alliance members have been meeting with city officials to update the plan and say they have a commitment for a bike lane on part of the avenue, from Owen to Marshall streets. Well, though there ought to be a bike lane all the way to Farmington, this is a tough stretch for bikers and a good place to help them through.
Farmington Avenue doesn't have to be a stroad. With a little imagination it can be a vital urban stem, the liveliest street in the region.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun