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.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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