The Word We Really Need To Stop Using in Roadway Design

As language in general evolves to become more respectful, there is a lingering term in the roadway engineering profession that makes me cringe a little every time I hear it. It’s a word that seems to contradict Vision Zero goals of reducing road violence – in fact, the term itself insinuates road violence. Though you generally don’t find this term in standards and guidelines, I still see it pop up regularly in engineering drawings.

I am talking about the kill strip. It’s a term used to describe a narrow strip of pavement or other hard surface just behind the curb, found on many major roadways. This roadway element is actually quite mundane mainly serves a maintenance purpose in winter cities: it replaces what would otherwise be a strip of grass that would struggle to survive against heavy amounts of salt spray, and it also provides an easy spot to store snow.

A “kill strip” is shown in this cross section along one side of the roadway. In this case, it’s likely purpose is snow storage.

Why is it called that?

The origin appears to be more related to the inability to grow grass and other plants in this area. It’s an informal term that has been carried on through engineering circles, occasionally making its way out into the public in technical reports published by municipalities (it’s such a unique term that it’s quite easy to find with a quick Google search).

The term is surprisingly concentrated geographically. I wasn’t able to find it in documents from any US cities, and nearly all of the results seem to come from municipalities in Ontario.

“Kill strip” is also absent from design guidelines. In Canada’s national road design guideline, you won’t find this term, or any term for it at all. Here’s what the guide does say: “Boulevard widths less than 2.0 m, typical of retrofit situations, are normally hard surfaced rather than grassed due to maintenance difficulties associated with narrow strips.” That’s it – boring, technical, and neutral.

Why is it a problem?

While I could simply argue that informal terms shouldn’t be used in a technical field, this is hardly the only example in street design. We have “zebra crossings”, “elephant’s feet”, “sharks teeth”, “piano bars”, all of which are slang for more technical terms. The difference with “kill strip”, however, is that none of the other terms has such a direct connection to violence.

The problem, in this author’s view, is how this term comes across to the average citizen. The “kill strip” is often wedged between a bike lane and a sidewalk. What would a member of the public’s reaction be if an engineer told them they were going to install a bike lane next to the “kill strip”?

A cross section showing a bike lane between the roadway and the “kill strip”. What does this suggest about the safety of the cycling facility?

It suggests an insensitivity towards the needs of people walking, and does nothing to convince the public that engineers care about the safety of vulnerable road users. On many suburban roadways without sidewalks, the narrow “kill strip” is the only hardscaped area in the boulevard for people to walk. You’ll even find “kill strips” that lead to bus stops, indicating that the transit agency expects people to use these to access basic services.

A narrow maintenance strip is the only option for people walking here, calling into question whether the term “kill strip” is really appropriate for situations like this.

While I’m sure most engineers would agree that the “kill strip” is not designed or intended as a safe place for people to walk, in some cases it is the only place. While I’m also sure most engineers would agree that they don’t mean to disrespect people by calling it a “kill strip”, I’m sure that’s not how it is perceived by the public. It arouses comparisons to the military term “kill zone”, used to refer to an area with a high concentration of fatalities.

If you walked into the doctor’s office to get your vaccine, and were told to go wait in the “stab room”, wouldn’t you feel slightly unnerved? If the doctor explained by saying “oh, that’s just what we call it”, would you feel any better?

What is being done about it?

Fortunately, the “kill strip” seems that this term is on its way out. While it’s still common to find it in individual reports and in design meetings, it’s mostly absent from published standards and guidelines. One alternative term, “splash strip”, has been taken up by Brampton, York Region, and Kingston. “Maintenance strip” may be an even better alternative – it effectively describes its purpose and is sufficiently benign. Other agencies appear to have abandoned the hardscaped maintenance strip altogether from street designs, opting instead for wider landscaped boulevards, or wider sidewalks in more urban areas.

Rather than waiting for a generational turnover to retire the “kill strip” from engineering, I encourage anyone still using this term to reconsider it, and consciously make a point to call it out and replace it with a more benign term when talking with others.

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