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Road Diets: In Response to Growth is Widening Always the Answer?

By Donavon Corum, RLA, AICP, and LEED AP 

Road Diets - Corum

In my prior blog entry, Allowing Frederick County to Grow Organically, I spoke about the organic nature of planning.  Traffic elements and issues are particularly fluid, pointing to the necessity of flexibility in planning.  Traffic like all human behavior, is not easily modeled.  This was reinforced during a continuing education program I attend and leads me to this:    To widen or not to widen?  That is the question. 

The two day workshop I’m referring to was the American Planning Association Complete Streets Workshop.  Halfway into our first day I asked Mr. Walter Kulash (co-presenter) the following question:    “How do Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances play a role in complete streets?”

His answer was very interesting.  Traffic Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances (APFO) lead to a vicious circle that took hold 40 years ago.  We keep widening our streets with no end in sight.  Mr. Kulash went on to explain APFO is a standard approach and not very innovative.  In some instances, new streets and / or re-alignments are warranted.  However, overall street design should relate to both the vehicle and pedestrian.  For this discussion, I focus on existing roads.

Generally APFO tests, among other aspects, the “Level of Services or Lane Volume of Streets and intersections” (LOS) is a key factor in the ultimate width of the street.  The LOS is part of the vicious circle.

Frederick County currently requires a LOS classification of “D” or higher to be considered “adequate” for the Urban and Suburban areas in the County.  What does it mean in when the LOS falls below the classification of D?  Typically it results in increased street and intersection widths due to the addition of extra turning or through lanes.  Wider streets reduce motorist delays and create longer travel range due to no or little delays.  The byproduct is increasing capacity, encouraging more vehicle demand and eventually exceeding the adequate level as set by the municipality.  Thus additional lanes lead to increasing conflict points, greater amounts of asphalt, higher street maintenance costs and street designs that start to resemble small airport runways.  We arrive at the vicious circle.

If we start to explore and incorporate an innovative approach, step outside the box and work within existing right-of-ways (accepting some controlled congestion with delay), options start to be emerge.  These include: alternative modes of transportation; narrow streets and reclaimed street space for “higher and better use” than moving peak hour traffic; fewer conflict points (eliminating or reducing “multiple threat” crash types); reducing pedestrian crossing distance; changing land use patterns to facilitate redevelopment / infill, and “traffic evaporation”.

Road Diets Image2Traffic evaporation is a growing movement and studies such asFrom Elevated Freeways to Surface Boulevards (Robert Cervero, Junhee Kang, and Kevin Shively; Dept. of City and Regional Planning University of California, Berkeley; Dec. 2007) have shown that reducing road capacity does decrease traffic – but not as dramatically as increasing capacity increases traffic.  The standardthinkers predict that reducing capacity would cause gridlock, but researchers are finding that although there are some short-term disruptions, there were no causes of long-term gridlock.  Most drivers moved to parallel streets or changed their travel time to avoid congestion.  Some drivers changed their mode of travel, adjusted where they carried out activities, increased telecommuting, or changed where they lived or work.

If we start to step out of the box and take innovative approaches and accept controlled congestion and delay, our streets will start to focus on the human scale, not the small airport scale.  One such municipality that is taking aninnovative approach is the City of Hagerstown.  The City has designated areas targeted for growth and redevelopment / infill and provides APFO exemptions.  The Washington County Urban Growth Area Committee recommended that if projects occur within a specified radius of MTA bus stops or Park-and-Rides, APFO exemptions or lower LOS classifications should apply.  There is abundant potential “Out of the Box” innovativescenarios in Frederick County.  Acceptance of lower LOS classifications or exemptions could occur for projects within a designated radius of the various mass transit stops and Park-n-Rides, targeted redevelopment areas, local bus terminal and so forth.  This leads me back to my original question:

To widen or not to widen?

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About the Author:  Donavon Corum, RLA, AICP, and LEED AP  is the Managing Member of Design Core Studio, LLC, a Maryland Planning and Landscape Architecture Firm.  Donavon will be a speaker at the NAHB 2011 International Builders Show in Orlando.  He is currently participating with the American Planning Association’s (APA) National Infrastructure Investment Task Force as part of the Green Sub-Task Force.

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