Are road diets the next big thing for US cities?

Does Chicago really need all those lanes? Image: Getty.

Like so many new concepts in urban planning, road diets seem like a great idea at first. And, like so many concepts in urban planning, they tend to generate a lot more criticism once they’re put into place.

The idea of a road diet is simple: to pinpoint streets that have excess capacity and could be narrowed down without significant car congestion, so providing space for other uses, such as sidewalks and bike paths.

It’s also an almost exclusively American concept, which makes sense; while streets in Britain and other European countries aren’t exactly crying out to be narrowed down, on the other side of the Atlantic, the streets seem to be the only thing wider than the country’s waistlines.

The roots of the concept date back to the 1970s, but it only began gaining traction over the past decade, loosely connected with other movements such as smart growth and complete streets.


Planners in the US began studying cases in which city streets had been widened to improve traffic flow for cars. They found that, in most cases, these projects did little to improve traffic flow, while creating an enormous increase in accidents. For instance, a study done in Fort Madison, Iowa, showed that while widening a main road led to a traffic volume increase of 4 per cent, it also increased the accident rate 14 per cent, and the injury rate by 88 per cent.

The obvious response to these findings is, naturally, to slim wider streets back down. But this slimming down can take many forms: widened sidewalks; replacing four-lane highways with three-lane ones, in which the middle lane is for those turning; and separated bike lanes. Last year, urban planner and author Jeff Speck teamed up with animation specialist Spencer Boomhower to create a series of videos showing the many possible forms road diets can take.

How effective has the concept been? In the US, road diets have seen a number of success stories. In New York City, a 2013 study revealed that road diets there had “significant safety benefits”.  They’ve seen success on the west coast, too: a pioneer in road diets, San Francisco has implemented 34 road diet projects over the last four decades, with favourable reactions from traffic engineers. Similar projects have also been implemented successfully in nearby Davis, California.

A street in Davis, CA, before its road diet. Image: Transport Observer/Wikimedia Commons.

But though road diets have allowed some cities to slim down their traffic safety problems, others have found that sticking to road diets is harder than sticking to actual diets.

Take Carolina Beach, North Carolina. Back in 2010, planners implemented a road diet on Lake Park Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, in a bid to make the city more bike friendly.

But the measure was met by howls of protest. Local businesses complained of decreased sales, and the city’s car traffic during holidays led to increased traffic jams. In 2012, the road diet was reversed.  

Down the coast, in Gainesville, Florida, a road diet was adopted in mid-2013 for a wooded stretch of 8th Avenue. Four traffic lanes were reduced to two on a trial basis.

While the trial decreased injuries significantly, it met with staunch criticism from drivers, inconvenienced by a difficult merge area created by the road diet. The new configuration remained for over a year, but it was finally removed after being voted down by the city commission in December 2014, though plans are in the works for adding a shared pedestrian/cycle path on both sides of the road.

The same street after its road diet. Image: Transport Observer/Wikimedia Commons.

Then there’s Los Angeles, which despite some noble efforts to reverse its car-centric status by expanding its metro system, lives up to its reputation in its efforts to pursue road diets. Back in 2011, an attempt to implement a road diet on Wilbur Avenue, deep in the depths of the suburban San Fernando Valley, was quickly put to sleep after massive neighbourhood outcry.

Even in Silver Lake, an LA neighbourhood packed with bike-loving hipsters, the policy is in trouble. A road diet on Rowena Avenue in place since 2013 has been the source of continuous controversy, including angry driver rants caught on tape, though it remains in place for the time being.


Though the reasons road diets fail vary city by city, their common underlying cause boils down to political convenience. By their nature, road diets create an immediate inconvenience for drivers – who tend to be more affluent and politically connected; to compensate that, there’s only the long-term promise of creating greater safety, and a more bike and pedestrian friendly urban environment. For local politicians eager for quick victories, this all too often proves to be a toxic combination.

The lesson is clear. Road diets have paid off for some US cities. But for others, powerful political forces and a deeply rooted car culture have made sticking to road diets as difficult as swearing off junk food.

 
 
 
 

Patently obvious: Which European cities are the most inventive?

Regensburg, Germany – Pretty, inventive, and pretty inventive. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Europe’s cities.

Europe is quite a nice place. Though Nigel Farage, the Conservative Party, and anyone who’s noticed that the second syllable of Remain sounds a bit like moan will tell you otherwise, there’s some pretty nice stuff there.

The continent is host to three of the world’s richest countries in absolute terms – France, Germany, and Italy. And if you look at the top twenty countries in terms of national wealth per person – aka GDP per capita – then Europe fills more than half the spots, with twelve entries from Luxembourg in pole position to Belgium in 20th place.  Poland was one of the fastest-growing countries in the world last year. Good for you, Poland.

Croissants are tasty, Belgian beer is part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (apparently), and obscenely beautiful cathedrals are dotted around all over the place. In the extremely dubious language of good old-fashioned colonialism, Europe is the Old World – cultural crucible of the planet, Michelangelo, 1066 and all that.

But you probably don't think of Europe as the great 21st century hive of ingenuity, invention, and world-leading technology. Your mind might instead wander to the sprawling Californian campuses of Facebook and Google; the crammed and jostling skyscraper-shrunken streets of Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Shanghai; the ghostly-white-walled robot laboratories of Japan.

While you’re not wrong on that, you’re not necessarily right either – and looking at the numbers of patent applications to the European Patent Office will tell you that Europe remains a hub of inventive activity.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, is really really really inventive.

Eindhoven in Bavaria wait no that's a café the Netherlands. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The data comes rom 2011, when there were roughly 250 patent applications per 100,000 people. That might not sound like a lot, so imagine that number differently. If you were at a very hypothetically statistically perfect school in Eindhoven with 1,000 people (discounting obvious contributory factors like post-education migration), there would be at least two people with EPO patents. Or perhaps just one very inventive person. Either way – think back to your real secondary school. How many patents have its alumni been granted? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

Eindhoven is so far out of the other cities’ league that it’s actually worth discounting it from the data to make the other figures easier to see.

Regensburg, a city with a similar population to Oxford just down the road from Nuremburg in Germany’s Bavaria, comes in second, with 83.8 applications per 100,000 people. Aachen, up near Germany’s northwestern border with the Netherlands and Belgium, follows close behind, and the prestigious university town of Heidelberg – just south of Frankfurt – narrowly takes fourth place.

This is mostly an excuse for pictures of pretty cities like Aachen. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Grenoble is the first non-Germanic entrant. The city in France’s south-east clocks 80 applications per 100,000, before the Germanic cities storm back in with Darmstadt, Zurich, and Basel in quick succession.

Grenoble, land of flying globules and mountains. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

To take a generalisation further, what’s extraordinary is that of the top 20 of these most inventive cities, only four are in countries or areas that do not speak a Germanic language. For our purposes here, I’m excluding the UK (and the English language) from that definition; Grenoble, Cambridge, Lausanne, and St Quentin en Yvelines are the only cities in the top 20 that aren’t in German, Dutch, or Swedish-speaking places.

And if you do include English as a Germanic language – which you probably should – then you’re down to Lausanne and St Quentin en Yvelines as lonely French outposts in the Germanic land of invention. Nobody wants to veer into linguistic-group stereotyping, but there’s something very Vorsprung Durch Technik going on here.

Get rid of all the Germanic-language-speaking nations included in the data (by my count: Great Britain, Germany, Germanic Switzerland, Flemish Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands) and it’s a very different picture.

France entirely dominates, taking up the first 12 entries prior to a guest appearance from Parma in Italy. Geneva slips in behind, and the Italians romp through with Bologna, Modena, and Ferrara all in the non-Germanic top ten. Weird, huh?

And for the cruel-spirited amongst you, the least inventive cities included in the data were Almería and Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain, Taranto, Reggio di Calabria, and Palermo in southern Italy, and Czestochowa in southern Poland. Pesky southerners.

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