Road Rash?


Brad Anderson

In community and neighborhood planning, many issues become hot buttons of controversy - new subdivisions, tax increases caused by new schools and new growth, etc. We rarely give road design and maintenance more than a second thought when considering issues of land use planning. But NH DOT that tells us that "failing to take land use into account will increase the cost of maintaining an acceptable transportation system in the future".

How is that? An example (taken from real life): a rural gravel road is widened and upgraded. The neighborhood becomes more attractive to developers. A cluster of suburban type houses are built right up on the road across from an active farm. The farmer moves away. More than likely, the farm becomes another subdivision. The "new people" drive faster on the country road and don't "give way" to oncoming traffic like the older residents. The remaining narrow spots on the road start to be thought of as "dangerous" (even though no accidents occur there). The residents petition for more widening so that drivers who exceed the speed limit can do so "more safely". People drive faster. The perception that the road is "improved" makes it more attractive to yet more new residential development. The new residents want trash pickup, plowing, street lights and - uh oh - paving. People drive faster. The cycle continues to escalate. Today's taxpayers pick up the bill because new residential development never pays its own way.

Yet there are several principles (outlined in the NH Municipal Association handbook on NH Law of Local Highways, Streets and Trails called "A Hard Road to Travel") that we often forget when we are thinking of road design and maintenance. Here are a few:

Here is the problem: many of us want more convenience in our daily lives. Part of that convenience is related to roads. When we clamor for wider roads that make us feel safer (even if we aren't!) or for paving to reduce dust or to limit the number of days per year that we drive on washboard roads, we are unwittingly causing an increase in land use planning problems that will plague us in the future.

If history is any guide, we will eventually move away because we can't stand the traffic noise and excessive speeding or because we are disturbed by the new subdivisions that have come to our once-rural neighborhoods (now made more attractive to "city-folk"). Or, increased taxes could drive us out as we pay for million dollar traffic lights that we didn't used to need, increased road maintenance costs, new paving projects, or increases in costly residential growth brought on by "better" roads. This is not some whacky prediction of a future that won't happen - this is learning from the past, and from experts like the American Society of Civil Engineers, the NH Municipal Association, the NH DOT, and the American Planners Association.

Many of our choices are rash - made without adequate consideration of the impact:

If these measures actually make these roads less safe to drive on - if more accidents or worse injuries occur than formerly did - then there is the potential of an additional taxpayer cost: lawsuits against a town that knowingly - and therefore negligently - created less safe driving conditions on its roads.