A four-lane road may be optimal for 15 minutes a day, and overkill the rest of the time. Hence, the move in cities across the country to put some overbuilt roads on diets.
Spokane, Spokane Valley and some North Idaho cities have been using “road diets” to reflect the needs beyond those of motorists in a hurry. Trimming four lanes to three increases safety for motorists and encourages greater use by pedestrians and bicyclists. The latter often benefit by getting their own lane.
Dedicated left-turn lanes and single lanes in opposite directions increase safety in several ways but, as with any change, the criticism comes fast and furious. The announcement of a road diet on North Monroe from Indiana Avenue north to the top of North Hill has sparked a flurry of critiques centered on congestion. Simple math tells us that four lanes can move more traffic than three, right?
But for most of the day and night, vehicular traffic isn’t an issue on that section of road. During those times, three lanes are more suitable for a variety of users. And, it’s safer. Transit changes will speed up buses through that section.
Road diets are not prescribed for heavily traveled arterials, such as Maple and Division streets. But they can be effective on roads with traffic volumes of fewer than 20,000 vehicles a day. Most of Spokane’s projects involve traffic volumes of 10,000 vehicles or fewer.
Although some worry that rush hour congestion might tempt motorists to cut through neighborhoods, that hasn’t been the experience in other cities using road diets. The initial anxiety dissipates, people adjust and about the same number of people drive the streets. Significantly more people walk and bike on them. Businesses report that customers appreciate the safer environment.
Jim Hanley, the owner of The Tin Roof on East Sprague, was initially skeptical of the restriping that would turn four lanes into three, but his customers liked it. Jack-Daniyel Strong, president of Strong Solutions, said of the pedestrian experience, “Traffic stops for you now.”
The Federal Highway Administration reports that road diets have improved safety by an average of about 30 percent. Seattle has narrowed 29 streets during the past three decades and seen an increase in safety, along with more walkers and bikers. A Vancouver project reduced accidents by 52 percent. Clear Lake, Iowa, reported a big drop in crashes and aggressive speeding.
The North Monroe project was able to land a grant largely because of the death of a 5-year-old girl hit while crossing the street.
Traffic engineers know these projects work. Cities elsewhere have seen the benefits. The added seconds for motorists during Spokane’s rush quarter-hour are a small price to pay.
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