Fewer lanes mean more safety, officials say
Traffic planners put arterials on ‘road diets’
Sun., March 1, 2015
Traffic backs up on East Sprague Avenue on Wednesday. The city changed Sprague to a three-lane configuration more than a year ago. (Tyler Tjomsland)Buy a print of this photo
Jim Hanley, co-owner of The Tin Roof, admits he was skeptical about the idea of reducing East Sprague Avenue in front of his business from four lanes to two with a center turn lane.
More than a year ago, the city restriped Sprague in the three-lane configuration in what is called a “road diet.”
Hanley changed his mind. The day the new lanes went into effect, he said, customers to his home furnishings shop told him they liked it. The configuration provides wider street parking, and the customers said they felt safer because of it.
“If the customers feel safer getting in and out of cars, it’s good for business,” he said.
Across Spokane and North Idaho, traffic engineers are increasingly putting roads on these so-called diets, shrinking travel lanes to make more room for pedestrians, bicycle riders and parking. More importantly, the three-lane roads can reduce a variety of accidents, such as those caused by drivers trying to get around left-turning cars.
In the past several years, the city of Spokane has put at least 10 arterial streets on diets. Elsewhere, the city of Spokane Valley has used the technique on Broadway Avenue and is planning to do it on McDonald Road. Post Falls has pruned several arterials to the smaller sizes.
More are on the way.
The state of Washington recently announced that Spokane, Spokane Valley and Spokane County will get grant funding to reduce lane configurations on several streets – North Monroe, North Crestline, West Mission and Maxwell, North Market and McDonald.
But the new road configurations can be controversial.
Spokane Valley, for example, nearly canceled a plan to reconfigure a section of Broadway Avenue in 2010 after some City Council members objected. Vocal support by cyclists helped push the project through.
More recently, Spokane Valley put the brakes on proposals to reconfigure Broadway from Havana Street to Fancher Road and University Road from Appleway Avenue to 32nd Avenue. Sean Messner, senior traffic engineer for Spokane Valley, said City Council members declined to seek grant funding for that work after members of the public told officials that they like to have the choice to drive at different speeds in different lanes.
Brandon Blankenagel, civil engineer for Spokane, said the three-lane configuration works well when traffic volumes are below 20,000 vehicles a day. It is not recommended for streets above 24,000.
The conversions so far in Spokane fall within those numbers, with most of the volumes below 10,000 vehicles a day.
Four-lane arterials date to the ’50s and ’60s
The predominance of the four-lane arterial dates to the 1950s and ’60s when engineers thought that population growth would drive up traffic volumes and cause congestion.
“I think there was a view for many years about throughput – the more lanes the better,” Blankenagel said.
Residents may be reluctant to accept the road diets, he said, but the experience so far shows that going from four to two through lanes is not holding up traffic.
Two years ago, the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina studied the use of road diets for the Federal Highway Administration.
Researchers discovered there wasn’t a large amount of comparative information available, but what was available showed that traffic accidents dropped an average of 29 percent on streets where the configuration changed from four to two through lanes with a center turn lane.
“Road diets can be seen as one of the transportation safety field’s greatest success stories,” the author wrote.
Plus, Blankenagel said, “Are we really causing a problem if we are increasing safety to do it?”
Road diets offer the opportunity to create curb extensions for crosswalks, more space for street-side landscaping and furniture, or bicycle lanes.
Those additions have the effect of slowing traffic.
“Subconsciously, you are going to take it more carefully,” Blankenagel said.
The North Monroe project, which is several years off, could include installation of a “high-intensity activated crosswalk beacon,” known as a HAWK light. The pedestrian pushes a button, a beacon starts flashing and vehicles stop.
One was installed on Hamilton Street by Gonzaga University several years ago and has increased safety for students there.
Diet won’t include a bike lane on North Monroe
The $4.1 million Monroe Street grant would convert the arterial to the three-lane configuration from Indiana Avenue north to the top of the North Hill. Traffic volume on North Monroe south of Indiana is too high to allow for the road diet, engineers said.
The Monroe project won funding in part because of the number of accidents there, including two fatalities. The most recent death in 2013 of a 5-year-old girl crossing the street with her mother was a big factor in getting the grant.
Spokane City Council members Karen Stratton and Candace Mumm, who represent northwest Spokane, both said the city will seek public participation in the design of the Monroe project. No meetings have been scheduled yet.
The new design will incorporate transit changes to speed up buses through the corridor. It won’t include a bike lane.
The street redesign also will focus on reducing stormwater flow into the city’s sewer system as part of an effort to stop pollution from getting to the Spokane River.
At a recent neighborhood meeting, Jeremiah Johnson, of Spokane, said the current four-lane configuration is dangerous. Travel lanes and parking areas on Monroe are so narrow through the business strip north of Indiana that he has almost had his mirror hit several times, he said.
But not everyone is excited about the potential changes.
At the same meeting, Patty Hughey told Stratton she has a few concerns: With only two through lanes, traffic could get caught behind a bus, she said. In addition, a single lane going up the North Hill on Monroe is a recipe for accidents and a traffic jam when it’s icy.
Hughey does support putting in a HAWK light to make pedestrian crossings safer.
City Councilman Mike Fagan said he is concerned about emergency vehicles being held up on Monroe, as well as the cost of the conversions.
“Utopia costs big dollars,” he said.
On South Monroe Street, the city last year put the segment from Ninth to 14th avenues on a diet, and included extensive stormwater infiltration areas. Those are accompanied by new pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.
Newer arterials in Post Falls being built with three lanes
Likewise, support for the change on Sprague is not unanimous.
Marisol Garza, co-owner of Furniture Boutique, 1826 E. Sprague, said traffic is backing up on Sprague during rush hour and some drivers have complained about it. She said the loss of two lanes is not worth the extra room for curb parking.
“It’s a busy street,” she said.
Just down the street, Jack-Daniyel Strong, president of Strong Solutions, said the road diet is exactly what the Sprague business strip needs.
“There was a lot of resistance up front,” he said. “It’s done what it’s supposed to do, which is slow traffic down and be safer for pedestrians. … Traffic stops for you now (if you are crossing the street.)”
He said he would like to see a more complete makeover of the strip between Altamont and Sherman streets with center dividers, left-turn pockets, street furnishings and new bus stops.
Bill Melvin, the traffic engineer in Post Falls, said many of the newer arterials there are being built with three-lane configurations and a few segments were converted, including Idaho Street north of Poleline Avenue.
He said a street put on a diet is a street that costs less money to build and to maintain. The key is to match the lane configuration with community needs.
“As a country, we can’t afford to overbuild our infrastructure,” he said.
At the same time, in places where traffic volumes are high, he said, “We can’t afford to underbuild it, too.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.