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.

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.