In Lean Times, Road Diets Leave Slim Pickings for Commuters

By Benita M. Dodd



Not many people announce they’re going on a diet; it may fail and they’re left embarrassed. Around the country and in Georgia, planners are quietly going on “road diets” and hoping you’ll be so busy admiring the pretty streetscapes that you won’t notice the gradual shrinking of space for vehicular traffic until it’s too late.

This social engineering move is euphemistically called “rightsizing streets.” It has little to do with transportation, and includes strategies such as “converting vehicle lanes to other uses, narrowing vehicle lanes, adding bike lanes, improving pedestrian infrastructure, changing parking configuration and adding roundabouts and medians,” according to the Project for Public Spaces, which earlier this year released a report called the “Rightsizing Streets Guide.”

The report’s glossary notes, “The space of a lane formerly used for moving vehicles can be used for a variety of new purposes – a bike lane, expanded sidewalk space, or a median to help make it safer and easier for people to cross the street. Lane conversions also make the road safer, as the reduction from two lanes to one lane in a given direction minimizes lane changes and reduces speeding.”

A manual from the American Planning Association (APA), “Complete Streets: Best Policy and Implementation Practices,” is described as “the result of a collaborative partnership” among the APA, the National Complete Streets Coalition and the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity.  

The movement arose from the bicycle advocacy community “as a response to the absence of space for bicyclists and pedestrians along too many roads,” the manual notes. It cites 10 elements for “complete streets policy,” the first being that it includes a vision for how and why the community (read, squeakiest wheels) wants to complete its streets and the second that the policy, “Specifies that ‘all users’ includes pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit passengers of all ages and abilities, as well as automobile drivers and transit-vehicle operators.” 

At No. 8 is that the policy, “Directs the use of the latest and best design standards while recognizing the need for flexibility in balancing user needs.” 

“Flexibility in balancing user needs” sounds reasonable, except that planners have a tendency to go overboard, embracing policies in which streets are no longer about being transportation thoroughfares; providing mobility for vehicles becomes an afterthought. The Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association recently sent out an e-mail to members reporting on the city’s “plan for short to long term streetscape improvements [on Peachtree Road from Martin Luther King Jr. to Marietta Street], including landscaping, art, lighting, a road diet and more.”  

Perhaps the question nobody is asking here is, “What is the right size?” And more important, “Why worry about road diets?”  

Here’s why. It’s a nip here and a tuck there, but the insidious “livability” approach to transportation should worry commuters, given that metro Atlanta drivers are clamoring for congestion relief, not streetscapes, art or roadway reductions. Bicycle lanes are a noble goal, but not a transportation/commuting priority in a climate of shrinking dollars. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010, an estimated 0.53 percent of American workers commuted by bicycle; in Atlanta, it was 0.9 percent. (The city claims the 2012 share is 1.1 percent. If true, that’s a whopping 22 percent increase in bicycling commuters!) 

Even as transportation funds shrink, these ambitious plans, along with an ever-costlier streetcar project, are reducing vital road capacity in a city that barely kept up with it before:

  • The Atlanta Streetcar, whenever it finally is operational, will “share” its lane with auto traffic, if 15 mph can be considered “sharing.”   
  • Atlanta is promoting plans to add bicycle lanes, widen sidewalks and reduce automobile lanes in some of the city’s most congested areas, including around Piedmont Park.

 Not only are such moves punitive and disruptive of commuter trips, but fewer and narrower lanes, as well as streetscapes and speed humps, could impact public safety by increasing response time for emergency vehicles and making streets more difficult for fire trucks and ambulances to negotiate. 

According to the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report, from 1982 to 2011 metro Atlanta’s population nearly doubled (95.6 percent), highway lane miles more than doubled (112 percent) and arterial lane miles increased 148 percent. But the increase in commuters and peak travelers was even greater, at 174 percent.  

There’s a reason that the Foundation’s mantra is that transportation policy must focus on transportation solutions. When the targets are congestion reduction and mobility enhancement instead of complicating residents’ travel, more people will have time to stop and smell the roses. Or perhaps, even, to plant them.