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.

 
 
 
 

Five thoughts inspired by three days in Liverpool

Liverpool from Everton Park. Image: Jonn Elledge.

I’ve just returned from three days in Liverpool. Ostensibly I was there for Labour conference, but, as promised, I spent a fair chunk of my time wandering on both sides of the Mersey, in an attempt to improve my knowledge of a city I’ve not visited in years.

Obviously there’s a limit to what you can learn about a city in three days. A couple of hours in the local history museum – which is fabulous, by the way – will only get you so far. 
So what follows is a collection of half-formed thoughts and first impressions, rather than a detailed academic thesis. You’re welcome to argue with me on Twitter or Facebook. I might even be arguing with myself in a couple of weeks.

Nonetheless, before I forget, here are five thoughts.

A city that lost its purpose

I obviously knew that Liverpool was a port city, but I hadn’t fully grasped that this was basically the city’s entire reason for being there. It was little more than a fishing village when, in 1715, the world’s first enclosed commercial dock opened under what is now the Liverpool One shopping centre.

Over the course of the next two centuries, as the importance of transatlantic trade grew, new docks spread north and south along the Mersey shore for more than seven miles. By the mid 19th century, Liverpool was the second port of the British Empire, behind only London. Its position made it the ideal place to import materials and export goods from the industrial north. 


The Port of Liverpool is still busy (though by 2014 it had dropped to sixth in the list of British ports). But, as in port cities all over the world, the docks just don’t generate that many jobs any more. In the mid 20th century, “containerisation” meant that fewer dockers to load and unload ships. (Containers are generally unpacked at their destinations, inland.) Container ships also required new, deeper docks, rendering most of Liverpool’s historic facilities redundant. Oh, and de-industrialisation means there are simply fewer goods coming into and out of the north.

In other words, Liverpool is a city that has, literally, lost its original purpose.

Transport won’t solve everything 

Something people don’t often mention about Liverpool: it has an underground railway. Only a small one, admittedly – four stops, relatively close together in the city centre, served by commuter trains from the suburbs beyond. But it’s been there a while: the oldest section, opened in 1896 to connect the city with Birkenhead, across the Mersey, was the first deep-level tube in the world. 

Once upon a time, in fact, the city had an even better transport network.  Most cities had trams, back in the day, but Liverpool also had an elevated railway, the Liverpool Overhead Railway, which ran along the waterfront, from Seaforth to Dingle. In its day, the “Dockers’ Umbrella” was as much a symbol of its city as London’s Tube; it closed in 1956, when the company that owned it found it couldn’t afford to replace its crumbling infrastructure.

One of the themes of UK urbanism in recent years – the theory at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse project – has been the assumption that improving transport, connecting people with jobs, will improve our cities. But Liverpool once had great transport. It still declined. Today, there are British cities with worse transport networks. It hasn’t helped it bounce back. 

I don’t want to over-correct on this, and start claiming transport doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, Liverpool has slightly shaken my faith that better transport will fix the north.

Progress sometimes doesn’t always look like much 

One of the areas of Liverpool I was most keen to check out was the Baltic Triangle: a roughly triangular area between the Anglican Cathedral and the Queen’s Dock, named for the historic Baltic Fleet pub. It’s the bit where hipsters and start-ups live: according to the blurb, “once the city’s well-worn workshop, [it’s] now a cutting-edge destination where pioneering creatives work and play”.

It’s a dump.

The Baltic Triangle. Image: Pete Carr.

I was expecting something more like London’s Shoreditch or Manchester’s Northern Quarter – all bars and iMacs and flat whites. But in the Baltic Triangle, the streets are all dusty, half the place is a building site, and warehouses still look like warehouses.

But that, I suspect, is people are using them to actually make stuff, rather than poncing about in a cafe convincing themselves they’re Elon Musk. In other words, I think the problem here is with me, rather than with the Baltic Triangle. I need to check my prejudices.

A good brand isn’t everything 

I’m sounding like I’m really down on Liverpool: I’m not, I actually sort of love it. Not naming any names, but there are some British cities I’ve been to which I found genuinely – unexpectedly – depressing.

Liverpool isn’t like that, at all. The city centre looks great, the redeveloped docks look fantastic, and the view from the hill in Everton Park must be one of the most glorious to be found anywhere in any British city. There’s also as much energy and municipal pride in the city as you’ll find anywhere.

And yet, the city is still in decline on the most basic of measures: it’s one of the few large British cities that’s home to fewer people than it was in the early 1980s. And, while anecdote isn’t data, there seemed to be a lot of high quality office space standing empty in the city centre.

Liverpool feels like it should be able to bounce back from de-industrialisation. So far, though, it hasn’t.

But a good brand is something 

Not sure that's a selling point, lads. Image: Getty.

That said, something Liverpool is not short of is tourists. Thanks to the Beatles and football, and perhaps even history, the city attracts visitors in numbers most big English cities would kill for.

That name recognition should hold it in good stead as the new metro mayor – almost certain to be Labour’s Steve Rotheram – tries to sell the region to the world next year. The Liverpool name won’t be enough to attract investment and jobs – but it should at least help kick the door open.

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

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