Recipe for the Perfect Road Diet

Image from East Side Freedom Library, St. Paul, MN

California’s surface streets have a few pounds to shed. From driverless cars to Uber, Lyft, three types of solid waste cans, electric scooters to bikes – busy urban roadways are over-crowded with new trends creating a challenge for road safety. Some communities are so over-burdened with clogged streets that traffic engineers are starting to put roads on a “diet,” literally.

“Road diets are one of the tools we use to help accommodate that shift in trying to reduce the amount of single-occupancy vehicle travel,” according to Adrian Engel, a civil engineer with Fehr and Peers in Sacramento, California. Engel focuses on the state’s transportation system and has been working on the latest road diet technology known as “complete streets” for busy city surfaces.

Marq Truscott, who is a member of the California Landscape Architects Committee, undertakes some of these “road diet” engineered designs to make them comfortable enough for all users to coexist. “I think streets are actually going to become much more park-like in the future,” said Truscott, who is also a landscape architect for Atlas Lab in Sacramento, California. Truscott says he tackles street design challenges by reducing parking and adding trees and plants to create “protected zones” for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Think of Engel and Truscott like the television chefs who whip up amazing platters using random ingredients. Their order is to blend a multitude of fast-paced networks to construct a cohesive “complete street.” Their challenge is to re-purpose an infrastructure that was originally built for only one user, the motorist. Traffic engineers and landscape architects are also like nutritionists, prescribing road diet recipes that take lanes away from drivers to share the wealth with cyclists, pedestrians and solid waste bins. “What we’re trying to do with complete streets is to design streets that can accommodate all users of all abilities of all ages,” added Engel. On the menu includes diminishing drive lanes down from four to two and adding bikeways and pedestrian walkways. The intent is to establish a “traffic-calming” atmosphere with safer scenarios for all users.

The technique for the “complete street” design is still being perfected. Some communities have cancelled street pick up services to resolve conflicts with bike lanes. “I don’t think that cities can just punt the issue and say ‘you don’t have a claw anymore, good luck,’ no. We’ve got to have other solutions,” exclaimed Truscott. Many cities have also re-striped roads using green paint for their road diet. That has caused some confusion for both motorists and bicyclists. Truscott and Engel suggest city leaders take to social media and educate the public about how the new system works.

With the loss of driving lanes, traffic congestion is the intended result to encourage frustrated motorists to get out and bike or walk. Not everyone is on board though.  Try to convince a baseball parent with a car full of players and gear to bike to the game. Giving up a motor vehicle is a tough sell. “Everything that we do when we look at these things isn’t trying to force anyone to change a particular behavior. What we’re trying to do with complete streets is to really expand the types of choices people can make,” said Engel. People are interested in giving it a try. A recent survey, conducted by the City of Portland, shows 60 percent of their residents are willing to try active modes of transportation, but only if there’s a solid plan for safety and efficiency.

So, what’s the perfect recipe for a safe and pleasant road travel experience? Some might say give a little, take a little. “Drivers need to acquiesce to the bikes and the paths…that’s where the education piece is. As drivers we need to give up the road. It’s a tall order,” said Truscott.


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