Lawrence Solomon: How ‘road diets’ are making our car commutes even more painful

(December 15, 2017) Cities increasingly and indiscriminately push ‘road diets’ on unsuspecting citizenries.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

The Gardiner Express at rush hour.

You drive too much. So, too, does most everyone else — that’s the diagnosis by municipal planners and politicians across the continent. They have an answer for your overindulgence, too. They’re putting your cars on “road diets” by slimming the amount of asphalt available for your automobile, and slowing its movements, too. It’s all being done for your own good and especially for the new one per cent: those who commute to work by bicycle.

If you don’t hang out at city halls where talk of “road diets” is the rage, you likely won’t have heard this phrase in the planner’s lexicon, but you will have experienced the results. Thanks to road diets, four-lane streets have become three (the middle lane having become a left-hand turning lane shared by vehicles travelling in both directions), streets have become constricted by all manner of “traffic calming” measures and the dieticians’ favourite prescription of all — the bicycle lane — has become ubiquitous.

Road planners offer a variety of rationales for road diets: vastly fewer accidents, much less pollution, less traffic congestion and much more livable cities. One of the most influential drivers of the “road diet” philosophy, a 1999 article called “Road Diets: Fixing the Big Roads” by two American transportation planners, sold road diets as no-brainers that would redevelop cities and fill city treasuries to boot. “Often these changed roads set the stage for millions or mega-millions of dollars in new commercial and residential development,” the planners wrote. “In some cases costs of reconstructing roadways are repaid in as little as one year through increased sales tax or property tax revenue.”

Road planners offer a variety of rationales for road diets

Toronto’s downtown St. George Street, cited by these planners, was then a poster-child in the road diet movement. St. George in the 1990s had fallen into disrepair; so many sped along it that it was a police favourite for speed traps. Toronto made the street pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly by narrowing its four lanes to two, widening its sidewalks, lengthening its bike paths and adding architectural features such as interlocking brick pedestrian crossings, benches and planters.

The results were positive. With single lanes preventing the overtaking of cars, speeding decreased; vehicle crashes plummeted by 40 per cent and bicycle use increased, from 1,500 to 1,600 cyclists per day. Most strikingly, car volumes were unaffected.

The St. George Street rehabilitation, while a success, was no model for the 99 per cent. St. George runs through the University of Toronto campus, one of the continent’s largest with some 60,000 students, most of whom don’t own cars and many of whom live on or near campus. What will be overwhelmingly popular in a high-density, largely homogenous setting will draw ire where diversity reigns. With cities increasingly and indiscriminately pushing road diets on unsuspecting citizenries, citizenries increasingly push back, particularly since a road diet affects their quality of life.

That backlash came big-time to Los Angeles’ city hall, hell-bent on imposing a road diet on many of its communities, even though just one per cent of L.A. commuters bike to work. Communities rebelled, filing lawsuits and organizing recalls of their councillors. In L.A.’s Playa De Rey neighbourhood, roads jammed as soon as the diet was imposed in July of this year. In four subsequent months of road dieting, the neighbourhood saw 52 accidents, compared to the past average of 11.6 accidents per year. Businesses reported sales off by as much as 40 per cent.

The St. George Street rehabilitation, while a success, was no model for the 99 per cent

“It really created havoc for us because we have no other roads to take,” explained John Russo, a local resident who co-founded Keep L.A. Moving, a community group fighting what it sees as the city’s duplicitous decision-making, a claim supported by the city’s own officials.

“We didn’t do studies. We just did what they told us to,” admitted the assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation at a public meeting. To obtain an exemption from the state’s environmental laws, the city under pressure from anti-car advocates distorted traffic statistics in arguing that road diets were urgently needed. “Most of Playa Del Rey didn’t know this was happening,” says Russo, whose group is taking the city to court. Other L.A. road diets are also being rolled back. Opposition has even arisen in Portland, Ore., proud home of the smart-growth movement, where commuters, shoppers and the Portland Business Alliance lobbied against road diets.

Some roads doubtless deserve to be put on a diet. Others, doubtless, could use a little fattening up. But in a democracy, the decision shouldn’t be left to a one per cent driven by an ideology irrationally aimed at the automobile and unsupported by honest study. Decision-making should be in the hands of the communities affected, ideally at the most local level possible, not by remote city halls in thrall to the latest fad diet.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

Third in a series. For part one, see here. For part two, see here. For part four, see here. For part five, see here.

Further Reading

Cycling good and bad
The Antiplanner, December 14, 2017

Bike lanes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be
Lorne Gunter, Edmonton Sun, December 11, 2017

Here comes ‘bike-lash’
Roy Exum, December 6, 2017, Chattanoogan.com

Interview with Lawrence Solomon on cycling
Mark Towhey, Newstalk 1010, December 3, 2017

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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2 Responses to Lawrence Solomon: How ‘road diets’ are making our car commutes even more painful

  1. Pingback: Are bike lanes safe? | Urban Renaissance Institute

  2. Pingback: Lawrence Solomon: Cyclists are just bloody collateral damage in the climate change wars | Urban Renaissance Institute

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