07 April 2013

“Road Diet”: Losing Width by Retrofitting (Re-post from the Progressive Press)

(Re-posted from the Progressive Press.)

 For most of the last century and continuing into this century, transportation planning in the United States has been mainly concerned with accommodating vehicular transportation. This automobile-oriented bias was embedded in travel demand forecasting models, transportation funding, zoning/subdivision regulations, street design ordinances, the general public and the general mindset of policy makers. The result in most cities has been a continual process of widening, and building new roads to alleviate traffic congestion due to increasing automobile ownership.

What was not accounted in this automobile bias oriented transportation system was the detrimental impact that it would have on neighborhoods; making them dangerous for pedestrians and bicycles. Neighborhood residents and local commercial establishments  previously would have put up with the problems for a while but, eventually if they could afford it or their business failed, they would leave the area, creating vacant buildings, marginal commercial and residential areas which were once vibrant.

However, in the last couple of decades, particularly as people are moving back to the city, the public is becoming more vocal and advocating changes to make places more pedestrian, and bicycle friendly. Transportation planners that once were concerned mostly about street widening , new roads and perhaps fixed route public transportation were assisting neighborhoods in their battle against the intrusion of the automobile in their neighborhoods.

A “road diet”or “rightsizing”  was one of the solutions created by planners to design roads that are more accommodating for other modes of transportation. A “road diet” usually consists of  reducing the lanes generally from four travel lanes to: one turn lane, two travel lanes and bike lanes on both sides. However, by reducing the amount of lanes, the street may also accommodate traffic islands, berms separating pedestrian and bicycles from traffic. Further possible options could be placing light rail or Bus Rapid Transit in the center, with two travel lanes and bicycle lane accommodation.

The following is a highlight of the some examples that I found that illustrate ‘road diet:” I included links so that the reader can look at these projects in more detail.

In San Francisco, reduction of traffic lanes has been linked to making cities more livable. The city has been doing this since the 1970s. Before the “road diet” many of the streets were known as merely a route to go from one place to another. People raced from stop-light to stop-light, endangering pedestrians and bicyclists. Now, on San Jose Avenue, traffic lanes are taken out, bike lanes are designated and the green areas are created. This change has created more of a neighborhood atmosphere. The empty storefronts, now are occupied and an additional benefit is reduced accidents. One resident stated that before the “road diet” there were one collision a week, but now this is reduced to almost none.

On Edgewater Drive in Orlando Florida, a four lane street was reduced to two travel lanes, one turning lane and bike lanes. After these changes, there was a major reduction in speeding, on some segments up to thirty-four percent reduction was observed. There is also reduction in crashes per miles traveled, an increase in pedestrian traffic by twenty-three percent and increase in bicycle traffic by thirty percent. There was not a decrease in property value or increase in traffic on the parallel streets. Although there were some calls to revert it back to its previous state, but after realization of its benefits, these complaints died down.

In Philadelphia, a project termed “The Porch” was initiated which eliminated a parking area near outside the 30th Street SEPTA transit, Amtrak and trolley station and replaced it with a large sidewalk, and an outdoor seating area with umbrellas. This caused no problems in parking or traffic congestion. It has since become a place for music performances, a farmers market, and other events. The station has some of the largest passenger traffic in the nation.

A more dramatic “road diet” would be to reduce a multi-lane street and put exclusive transit lanes in the middle (Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit) with bike lanes on the side.  This concept (minus the bike lanes) was used in Curitiba, Brazil, where there are two exclusive bus lanes in the center and ‘tube’ stations to protect passengers in inclement weather.

Istanbul, Turkey used the same concept in its Metrobus system on a major arterial (E-5). The lanes were reduced by two to allow for two exclusive lanes in the center with stations. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT ) route has significantly reduced traffic on the road (particularly bus traffic which was a major cause of congestion) and greatly decreased public transportation travel time.

The concept of using a ‘road diet’ on roads can be used in the smallest cities up to major metropolitan areas. It is demonstrated in the examples given that this technique reduces accidents, decreases congestion, increases pedestrians, increases bicycle riders, encourages pedestrian oriented business, and creates a sense of community. Reducing lanes to create exclusive transit lanes or BRT makes use of the street to create a more attractive public transportation system. It is expected that more cities will be using  a “road diet” to confront the conflicts between automobiles, pedestrians and bicycles.

Video Credit: StreetFilms

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