A few days ago I was driving around Saratoga Springs, when I found myself on the street in the picture to the right.
The interesting thing about this street is that it has a fairly substantial grass median running the entire length.
Of course, these sorts of fixtures can be decent additions to too-wide streets. They can act as traffic calming devices, parking spots and simply aesthetic additions. Near by my home in Salt Lake City, for example, 300 South includes a center divider that has diagonal parking. Several blocks of 400 West have a larger version of the fixture in this picture, with trees and grass. In both cases, the median serves to cut down on the overall asphalt and reduce the number of lanes, thereby creating a slower, safer street.
Other older cities in Utah also employ these devices. Center Street in Provo immediately comes to mind as an effective, attractive median site.
But Saratoga Springs — or at least this part of Saratoga Springs — isn’t an old pioneer town with wide streets designed to accommodate teams of oxen. Indeed, this particular area looks comparatively new, with the nonsensically winding streets and painfully similar houses that proliferated in the suburban housing bubble.
So, as a new-ish place, this street very easily could have simply been narrower — even a single side of this street could easily accommodate a single lane in either direction.
Instead, however, the designers created an over-wide street that they then immediately “fixed” by breaking it up with a grassy median.
It makes no sense to build like this. Wide streets cost a lot more than narrow streets — in the short and long terms — and grassy medians that no one uses are basically just money pits. Ultimately building a street like this is like flushing money down the drain.
In this case, the slightly raised median also may serve to discourage pedestrian crossings which is unfortunate but perhaps necessary given the wide lanes and lack of stops that encourage speeding. In other words, this street is more dangerous because it overwhelmingly favors cars.
I recently attended a conference at which an urban designer pointed out that we’ll eventually have to stop building places like this because they’re just not cost effective. I look forward to that day.