Sunday, October 13, 2013

When backage becomes frontage and frontage backage

One suburban design flaw discussed far less often than the cul-de-sac or the strip mall is the “backage” road – a road that provides vehicular access to the rear of properties that otherwise have “frontage” along an arterial road. The backage road optimizes vehicular operations on the arterial by limiting access and reducing turning movements. This improves the arterial’s capacity and, some say, its safety. Indeed, this arrangement is much safer than 1950s-era arterials, where a constant barrage of driveway openings create turning conflicts for people driving, walking and cycling.

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
Drive through any conventional suburb that developed primarily after 1980 and you’ll see this pattern. In my neck of the woods, examples abound in Washington and Clackamas counties just outside Portland. Farmington Road, Scholls Ferry Road and Murray Boulevard zip through the western suburbs, five lanes wide and lined with sound walls and trees, with people’s backyards just on the other side. Sunnyside Road ferries east side commuters in a similar fashion, but with an emphasis on landscaped berms and retaining walls. Homes and businesses are accessed by collector and local streets, sometimes quite circuitously.

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
It doesn’t have to be this way. For millennia, major roadways were lined with building frontages: Avenue of the Dead in pre-Columbian Teotihuacán. The Champs-Élysées in 18th century Paris. The broad avenues of Washington, DC (also of French origin.) Wilshire Boulevard in 1920s Los Angeles. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century, when we wanted to drive cars to these buildings, that things got all screwy.

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
In practice, provisions like these can make for challenging site planning, and some developers are hesitant to deviate from cookie-cutter layouts. But successful modern examples exist – not just along the historic boulevards of older cities, but in new urbanist communities that have busy suburban arterials running through them. Locally, I often point to Cornell Road where it passes through the Orenco Station neighborhood in Hillsboro, Oregon. Professional offices, apartments and retail stores in amply-fenestrated three-story buildings face a four-lane arterial with tens of thousands of cars going 40 mph. Wide, lush planter strips lessen the sensory impacts of this traffic. Direct building access is provided both for people walking along Cornell’s sidewalks and for people driving to the rear parking lot via backage roads.

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
Balancing the form and function of arterial roadways can be difficult, and it requires deliberate coordination between transportation engineers, land use planners and developers. But I think it’s worth the extra effort. The backage situations we’re seeing today are a visual blight and a failure of community design. If our most heavily traveled urban roadways are to be lined with rear building facades and sound walls, they might as well be freeways and we should start building overpasses and interchanges.

Or we could resume the millennia-old tradition of orienting our buildings toward our grand thoroughfares.

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