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A photo of a path.
The Fall Line Trace in Columbus, Georgia.

Multi-use paths aren't exactly stroads, but they can seem like it

I recently saw a blog post that asks the provocative question: “Are Multi-Use Paths the ‘Stroads’ of Active Transportation Infrastructure?” As a longtime believer in multi-use paths, I can’t help but chime-in with my take.

What is a “stroad?”

A “stroad” describes a particular ubiquitous trend in car-centric infrastructure. It’s a combination of a “street” and a “road,” but fits the role of neither well and inherits the worst of both. A street is a place for people to interact with businesses, residences, and other people. A road is a high-speed route for getting people from one place to another. Stroads are those five-plus lanes of traffic that run along parking lots and entrances to suburbs. In the words of Strong Towns: “They are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive. They’re also very dangerous.

To the urbanist crowd, stroads are one of the cardinal sins of bad infrastructure. Could the humble path, used for biking and walking, possibly be comparable? The blog post’s author, Emma, identifies several stroady qualities they have.

The case against multi-use paths.

She observes that paths usually clash with “places.” To quote the blog post:

MUPs often try to serve both people enjoying a place (like with streets) and people trying to get somewhere else (like with roads). If the path gets crowded, has poor visibility around corners, and people moving at significantly different speeds, then it fails as both a recreational amenity and a transportation route.

A “place” is somewhere that’s human scale, walkable, pleasant, and productive. Paths often connect with places, but themselves are usually nondescript corridors through wooded areas or alongside major roads (or rather, stroads). They’re for speedy bicycles or joggers, not for people to conduct their business or social life. When paths intersect with places, it’s akin to when a stroad merges into your downtown main street. The path users create traffic and other unpleasantness for the people there trying to enjoy themselves.

Another issue she brings up is that paths often constitute the only feasible route that connects places for cyclists or joggers. This parallels the stroad-style development of building one big road as the primary access to strip malls and neighborhoods. It gives one piece of infrastructure a monopoly, and anywhere that doesn’t connect to it becomes even more isolated. When traffic backs up, there’s nowhere to release the pressure. Compare this to a traditional grid of streets where traffic can distribute across the community. Similarly, a single monolithic path will limit its users’ mobility as much as it enables it.

In paths’ defense.

So, are multi-use paths as bad as stroads? I don’t think so, but the exact answer isn’t straightforward. I’ll use my own city, Columbus Georgia, as an example.

I believe paths are one of Columbus’ big success stories when it comes to mobility. You don’t have to take my word for it either. When we renewed our Bicycle Friendly Community award, our feedback praised how expansive our paths are. I personally use them all the time for commuting and recreation, and I always see diverse groups of people using them for the same things. I’m quite proud of our paths, so it feels like an insult to compare them to the dreaded stroads.

But maybe the comparison shouldn’t be so surprising. Columbus’ transportation is characterized by stroads everywhere. The minds that planned and constructed our paths needed to fit them into the developments that surrounded them.

Columbus’ original path, the Fall Line Trace, was envisioned to be like a park. Users were expected drive their cars to one of its parking lots and ride their bicycles from there. Our city’s leaders saw the tension between bicycles and cars sharing the roads, so their solution was to get the bicycles off the roads and onto the path. It was designed for recreation, and connectivity was never a part of the plan. In fact, the city even disallowed businesses adjacent to the Fall Line Trace to build connections to it. This was definitely born from the same top-down, one-size-fits-all mindset that produces stroads.

But, even if the original plan was short-sighted, the path has been a huge success in spite of that. Many people, myself included, use it for commuting or other ways that I’m sure its original creators did not intend. It’s been a major factor for revitalizing our community’s interest in bicycling. Our newer path developments, the Dragonfly Trails, now build upon its original design with a more holistic vision. They extend it by connecting different districts, neighborhoods, and businesses. Our path may not be perfect, but it’s an investment that continues to pay dividends.

The solution is more transportation options.

I agree with Emma’s conclusion, though. She says, “the problem is not that this MUP exists, it’s that it exists as the ONLY option.” Our paths’ alleged faults aren’t necessarily due to those paths themselves, they’re just getting blamed for the deficiencies in the rest of the transportation system.

If so many people need to use a path that it clashes with the people who want to use the places around the path, then the real problem is that we just don’t have enough active transportation options. Recall the traditional street grid where cars, pedestrians, and bicycles can evenly spread across different routes. The stroad-style mentality of trying to fit everything into a single one-size-fits-all piece of infrastructure, built for a single mode of transportation, is fragile and incompatible with how humans actually use places.

I’m not sure if paths are the future of transportation, but I believe they can lead us there. The fact that my town’s original path is such a success beyond its original purpose is evidence of that. At the very least, paths may be a kind of “Nicorette” that can help wean us off car-centric transportation so that more diverse and equitable options may flourish. Either way, the solution isn’t fewer paths, it’s more active transportation routes, everywhere.