However, backage roads have unintended consequences. By providing direct property access for vehicles, backage roads have encouraged land uses to “front” them. Front doors, windows and parking for businesses and homes are oriented toward the backage road instead of the arterial. In effect, the backage road has frontage, and the arterial frontage has backage. Zounds!
What’s wrong with this situation, beyond awkward semantics? It’s urban design. You end up with an arterial road lined with the rear ends of buildings. In commercial areas this means loading docks and dumpsters; in residential areas it means backyards and back fences. Reinforcing this set-up, road agencies sometimes build sound walls along arterials where they pass through neighborhoods (sometimes with doors for pedestrian access.) The end result is an access-managed, backage-served, walled-in arterial that is less of a public thoroughfare and more of a car sewer.
|Farmington Road, Aloha, Ore. A walled arterial. Image: Google|
|The best of intentions: On Scholls Ferry Road in Beaverton and Tigard, Ore., access is controlled but homes and|
businesses face backage or intersecting streets. Image: Google
|Adams-Morgan, Washington, DC. Image: Luis Gomez Photos|
Yet even in this continuing age of the automobile, compromise is possible. There are ways to design our arterials and surrounding land uses to be vibrant and dignified while still enjoying the operational benefits of backage roads and access management. All it takes is a more thoughtful development code. Buildings can be required to have front doors and windows facing the arterial, while still allowing access from rear parking lots or alleys. Street connections to the arterial can be required at urban-type intervals (200-400 feet), but can be limited to pedestrian/bicycle access in order to protect vehicle operations. Wide sidewalks, buffered bike lanes, multiple rows of trees, and dual-paned windows can be required to provide visual, audible and physical separation from arterial traffic, rather than relying on concrete sound walls. Depending on the operational characteristics of the arterial, on-street parking may be appropriate – it can make arterial-fronting retail spaces an easier conversation to have with developers.
|Cornell Road in Orenco Station, Hillsboro, Ore. Three-story|
mixed-use buildings face a busy arterial. Image: author
On the east coast, NJ Route 33 and County Route 526 pass through Washington Town Center east of Trenton, with stores and houses proudly presenting their front doors to Jersey drivers. A similar layout can be found along the arterials in Denver’s redevelopment of Stapleton Airport. Provision of on-street parking varies from place to place, but most parking spaces are tucked in carefully designed parking lots and alleys behind the buildings.
|Upscale townhomes and on-street parking along Route 526 in New Jersey's Washington Town Center. Image: Google|
Or we could resume the millennia-old tradition of orienting our buildings toward our grand thoroughfares.