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.

 
 
 
 

Eight thoughts on TfL’s “new” walking tube map

Wow, this will definitely be useful! Image: TfL.

Oh joy! Oh rapture! For here in the late summer doldrums, when significant news stories are about as easy to come by as offices with decent air conditioning, Transport for London (TfL) has released a new tube map.

Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s repackaged an old tube map by scrawling some numbers over it. Anyway: we’re never one to look a tube map in the mouth, so let’s do this.

The new tube map is meant to discourage you from getting on the tube

No, really. From the press release:

Transport for London (TfL) has launched a new version of the iconic Tube map, which shows how many steps it takes to walk between stations in zones 1 and 2.

The new map is the first official version in the world to show the number of steps between stations.

[London mayor] Sadiq Khan says the map will be a fun and practical way to help busy Londoners who want to make walking a part of their everyday lives.

In other words, if this tube map does its job right, you won’t set foot on a tube train at all. You’ll glance at the map, realise it’s only five minutes to your destination at ground level, and, pausing only to throw a smug glance at the poor saps going into the tube, start walking.

The new tube map only shows central London

To be specific, zones 1 and 2. There’s a reason for this: things are much closer together in central London, making walking a plausible option. Nobody in their right might is going to swap a Metropolitan line train from Rickmansworth to the City for a brisk seven hour stroll.

Anyway, I’m sure you’re just scrolling past this bumpf to get to the actual map bit, so here it is:

 

Click to expand, if you must. Image: TfL.

The new tube map is not actually new

If all this sounds a teensy bit familiar, that’s because it is. Last November TfL release its first official walking tube map. It’s, well, look:

Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The new one is exactly the same map only with all the figures multiplied by a factor of 100. That’s because:

Approximate steps are based on a moderate walking speed of 100 steps per minute

It’s exactly the same. It’s not “new” at all, it’s the same bloody map.


The new map isn’t necessarily that useful

For the vast majority of us, who don’t go around with Fitbits on our wrists, minutes are surely a far more intuitive measure of distance than steps. I don’t care that somewhere is 2,000 steps away; I just want to know how long it’ll take me to walk it.

More than that, this map is only useful if you’re trying to get between two places on directly connected by a single tube line. If you want to go from Oxford Circus to Holborn, then brilliant: you can see its 1,900 steps or about 19 minutes, and think to yourself, well, I might as well walk.

But what if you’re going from the middle of Mayfair to somewhere in Bloomsbury? You have no idea how long it’ll take you to get to and from the tube stations, and anyway, the quickest route is probably not the one that involves changing at Holborn. This map is effectively useless to you.

The charitable reading of this is that it’s about persuading the very small number of Londoners who do count their steps to get off the tube a stop early, or to do the last stretch above ground rather than changing lines.

The less charitable reading is that TfL have worked out there’s a flurry of press coverage (Hi, TfL!) every time they publish a new map, and they’ve decided that this is the best way to promote their campaign to get everyone walking.

The new map doesn’t tell you anything about how many steps you have to walk inside a tube station

Changing trains between the Bakerloo and Victoria lines at Oxford Circus is incredibly easy. The platforms are right next to each other. Get off at the right door, and it’s probably less than 50 paces.

Changing trains between the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines at Green Park, though, is not incredibly easy, because the platforms are nowhere bloody near each other. Scientists say the average Londoner spends approximately 5 per cent of their life changing at Green Park.

On this, the map is weirdly silent.

To be fair...

The new map shows that some journeys are really better done on foot

Look at this:

Click to expand. Image: TfL.

Remembering our conversation rate of 100 steps per minute, you can see that it’s less than 10 minutes between Bank and St Paul’s. Really not worth bothering with the tube, is it?

Cannon Street to Mansion House, meanwhile is just four minutes, while Cannon Street to Monument is around five. Cannon Street very obviously only got a tube stop because there’s a mainline terminus there. If it weren’t for that, no one would have bothered to build the thing in the first place.

Covent Garden to Leicester Square has no such excuse: 400 paces. No wonder they can get away with making Covent Garden exit only for extended periods of time without anything breaking.

Many of the shortest journeys of all are on the DLR. Which makes sense what with it being a tram with ideas above its station and all:

Click to expand. Image: TfL.

From Poplar to West India Quay it’s just 400 steps. Between Canary Wharf and Heron Quays, meanwhile, it’s just 200. That’s nothing.

(A side note: Canary Wharf’s DLR and tube stations are actually quite a long way from each other – the latter is much closer to Heron Quays DLR – but the map doesn’t bother to inform you of this, instead insisting on the fiction that there’s a nice easy change between Canary Wharf DLR and Jubilee line stations. Great work, guys. Fantastic map.)

The new map shows that some journeys are hilariously impossible on foot

Look again at that extract from the map above. It shows that, from Canary Wharf to North Greenwich, it’s 7,600 steps – or about an hour and a quarter to walk. From Canary Wharf to Canada Water, it’s 14,400 – heading for an hour and a half.

Why? Because the only to cross the river on foot around there is the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which means going a very long way out of your way.

Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a less extreme version of this phenomenon out west, where getting from Imperial Wharf to Clapham Junction, the next stop down the line, will take you about 36 minutes. Might be time to build some more bridges.

The new tube map shows that the tube map is still hideous

I know I have form for banging on about this, but seriously, all the old flaws are there in all their hideous glory. The awkward new shade of grey for the zone 2/3 bit in east London; the massively over cramped bit around Hackney. All of those were bad enough before someone started trying to add little numbers to them.

Come on TfL. Instead of mucking around with new variants on the existing map, how about you get too it and design a new one? Enquiring minds want to know.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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