The road diet battles in Seattle have a tendency to get nasty, and they are far from over. Even though the Federal Highway Administration has officially (finally) named the road diet as a “proven safety countermeasure,” the projects can be controversial regardless of past successes or engineering analyses.
But while we argue over every mile of proposed road diet, Walking in Seattle ran through pedestrian fatality data and found that of the 101 pedestrians who died between 2001 and 2009, 28 people died on over-designed Seattle roads that seem (at least at first glance) to be potential candidates for road diets:
“What’s a candidate for a road diet?” you ask. Well — depending on the road of course — most roads can carry up to 25,000 vehicles per day with a three-lane configuration before people start to see significant delays. Current four-lane roads with traffic below 20,000 vehicles per day will likely see no real delays (minimal vehicle time increases are often due to reduced speeding, which is the desired effect). Beyond 20,000, they can still work, especially if other improvements are made along the street to make things flow more smoothly. Plus, small delays in travel times are worth saving lives and preventing serious injury.
Not every fatality on the map above occurred on a road the city is going to be super eager to make changes to. Some have highway ramp issues. Others occurred on roads that have since seen changes. Some also happened on roads where the “road diet” solutions could be different than the typical four-to-three-lane conversions we’re used to in Seattle (for example, the downtown locations). But it is a strong illustration of the importance of complete streets and the risks we run by delaying these cost-effective projects that are nearly guaranteed to work.
Road diets significantly reduce the number of traffic collisions for all road users, making them better for driving as well as biking and walking. For example, Seattle’s Stone Way road diet reduced collisions by 14 percent, injury crashes by 33 percent, dangerous angle crashes by 56 percent and pedestrian crashes by 80 percent. Meanwhile, vehicle volumes stayed roughly the same and all it cost was a little paint (typically, they cost about $50,000 per mile, though costs increase amid controversy due to requested studies and increased public meetings). Biking increased by 35 percent.
Road diets also open doors for other roadway benefits, such as increased safe crosswalks. They typically make room for bike lanes, which increase bicycle access to businesses and complete valuable connections in the bicycle network. Sometimes they even add on-street parking (though this is rarely my preferred option) or medians.
Road diets also make neighborhood greenways cheaper and safer by increasing the options for safe road crossings at busy intersections. For example, the Wallingford neighborhood greenway on 44th/43rd Streets will cross Stone Way with just a concrete median island (updated details on that soon), an option that costs many times less than a traffic signal.
So it’s important to remember that much of the excitement of neighborhood greenways today is building on the hard (and sometimes unpopular and painful) work of past road diet efforts. And there are still many more projects yet to come. But it’s all worth it to prevent senseless traffic deaths and promote walking and biking in our communities.
It’s time for the city leadership to empower SDOT to carry out road diets in all situations where SDOT engineers determine there will be minimal impacts on traffic volumes. The department should be empowered to carry them out without painful, expensive and time-consuming public review processes so that we can make a serious dent in the number of Seattle lives senselessly cut short or changed forever.