In lean times, ‘road diets’ leave slim pickings for commuters
by Benita Dodd
Columnist
August 10, 2013 11:22 PM | 4963 views | 33 33 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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, “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 email 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.

Benita Dodd of Cobb County is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Comments
(33)
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netdragon
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August 22, 2013
If it worries commuters, then move further in or if you want to live way out then support funding for alternative modes of transportation. Those of us in Smyrna and other inner areas are not going to agree to just have a highway run through our cities for people who live way out, at the expense of the livability and aesthetics of our communities. That's kind of selfish to expect us to give that up. We want to have trails, we want to have streetscapes, and we want walkability, and we want an urban village. We don't need roads like South Cobb Dr being six-laned just so West Cobb, Marietta and East Cobb residents can pass through our cities conveniently and we don't really care to have a divided highway divide up our city just for your driving convenience because you don't want to live somewhere more sustainable, don't believe in transit, don't believe in bikes, and don't believe in walkability and only believe in unsustainable suburbanism.
SW Gal
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August 16, 2013
Thank you, Ms. Dodd. You are right. The bike club has already achieved its goal of installing bike paths and multi-use trails everywhere. Those of us who moved to East Cobb for the laid back suburban feel would appreciate it if others would stop trying to change our neighborhood. Please move to the many places that already have the urban feel and leave us alone. DOT and commissioners, stop signing us up for Federal plans that force us to follow the cookie cutter plans from the American Planning Association. We like our community just the way it is.
Aristippus
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August 15, 2013
It's impossible to fix Atlanta's traffic with the same thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. Bike lines, sidewalks, and public transit are about choice and letting people choose how they want to get somewhere. The irony is that the author is supposedly a free marketeer who loves choice, but instead myopically wants to tie people to the tyranny of traffic jams. The only way to improve traffic in the city is going to be getting people off the roads and that's going require giving them options so that they can choose how to move around.

If the author really wants to do something about her commute, then instead of blaming intown residents for improving their neighborhoods she should be advocating for Cobb to join MARTA or build commuter rail.
Samuel Adams
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August 14, 2013
The bikers posting on Ms. Dodd's column have to be the most self righteous group of bullies I've encountered on the net.

Just wow. You're all in such great shape, so smart, saving the world's energy and of course at least 20 years younger than many of us here in the 'burbs. Just wait a few years. We'll check back with ya then. (ha, you didn't know we were once YOU, didya?)
Chris Parrish
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August 21, 2013
Bullies? GDOT is a bully ramming through all kinds of road building obscenities.

It's not all about saving the planet; it's about being able to walk, ride and cross the street without being killed by some twit from Cobb who's late for work because he was stuck in traffic on 75. And if you rode a bike, you'd be in better shape.
MalenaN
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August 14, 2013
Ms Dodd argues against something that is actually in her interest. The more people that bike, walk or use public transport the less congested the roads. Just look a this famous photo:

http://www.danielbowen.com/2012/09/19/road-space-photo/
anonymous
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August 20, 2013
It's not about the bikes, dude. It's about the policy, forced upon municipalities using bribes and moving away from local control and more into the realm of what quasi-governmental, un-accountable (meaning these people are not elected and operate under the radar) faceless social engineers are trying.

In this case it's about bikes, sort of. In other cases, it might be about something else.
netdragon
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August 22, 2013
anonymous: contrary to your opinion, it's not taking away local control. It's what people want and it's what the active community members ask for in the local communities like Smyrna when they are asked.

News flash: Cobb is not suburban anymore. More lanes doesn't create less congestion.
Chris Parrish
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August 14, 2013
There's a reason that the federal government has cut off funding for more roads in Atlanta; the metro area is an EPA air quality non-attainment zone. This means that we need fewer cars on the road, not more. If we can wrestle our state reps aways from the road building lobby's money trough, maybe we can get some sensible traffic relief through mass transit, bike lanes/trails and sidewalks.

I would let the 'burbs wallow in their own mess if it didn't adversely affect our lives in the city. Think back to the courageous actions of people who blocked new freeway construction which would have permanently destroyed some of the best neighborhoods in town. We in the city are tired of paying the price for your poor planning.
jmartm
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August 13, 2013
Embarrassing commentary by someone who narrowly defines transportation, doesn't seem to think sidewalks belong alongside a *park*, and is the reason Atlanta suburbs are becoming increasingly unlivable. Shockingly outdated attitudes...
Dennis Hayes
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August 13, 2013
At Tim Lee’s town hall meeting tonight, my commissioner, Lisa Cupid, stated that when she was campaigning, sidewalks were the number two issue that she heard about (schools were number one). I did not get the impressions that people were complaining about having too many sidewalks. Also at the meeting, probably the most asked question was “why can’t we get sidewalks in my neighborhood?”

Michel Phillips
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August 13, 2013
(1) Moving a given number of people via bike requires much less pavement than moving the same number of people by car. More efficient use of tax $.

(2) OBESITY. And associated health problems.

(3) "Overall we find that bicycling infrastructure creates the most jobs for a given level of spending: For each $1 million, the cycling projects in this study create a total of 11.4 jobs within the state where the project is located. Pedestrian-only projects create an average of about 10 jobs per $1 million and multi-use trails create nearly as many, at 9.6 jobs per $1 million. Infrastructure that combines road construction with pedestrian and bicycle facilities creates slightly fewer jobs for the same amount of spending, and road-only projects create the least, with a total of 7.8 jobs per $1 million." http://www.peri.umass.edu/236/hash/64a34bab6a183a2fc06fdc212875a3ad/publication/467/
Tyler Smith
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August 13, 2013
So you don't live in Atlanta and you stand firmly against Atlanta becoming more livable? You only want to drive though Atlanta (understandable-many people are ignorant to the fact that Atlanta has a lot to offer residents and visitors alike), but Atlanta is trying to become more pleasing to everybody, even for curmudgeons like you, so that Atlanta can truly become a cultural melting pot and destination for all to enjoy (outside of their mini-vans and SUV's). Many Atlanta neighborhoods this has already taken place, Atlanta is behind and making progress, I am excited for its future. -resident near the Streetcar.
JamesMM
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August 13, 2013
Frankly lady, you're an idiot.

Adding lanes for vehicular traffic just promotes more vehicles to use the streets, and the neverending problem of traffic jams will continue.

The solution to traffic congestion is to change living patterns, not add more pavement.

Haven't you seen the results of vehicle-centric street planning so far? What's it go to show for itself? Just more congestion.
AshleyNB
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August 13, 2013
I am a new resident to Atlanta - a transplant from Kansas City. One of my favorite things about living in Atlanta is the availability of the bike trails and the Marta. It encourages people to get out and interact, it's great for the environment and it's good for you! A "commuter" is not just one person driving their car. It's a community of people opting for any choice of transportation they choose. I choose to take the trains, I choose to ride my bike. I have the luxury of living in Grant Park and only having to use my car to drive to the grocery store once a week. I can't wait for the streetcar to be open for public use! What a wonderful to connect the old neighborhoods and bring life to areas that might otherwise not be visited!
Curtis Hertwig
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August 13, 2013
How is building roads that accommodate bicycles and pedestrians safely "Social Engineering", but building wide fast lanes the accommodate only fast moving vehicles - that cause continued reliance upon oil and make living unsafe for alternative modes of transportation and encourage gridlock - not? We have socially engineered our world into 1 type of transportation.

Liberty is freedom to choose. I want my liberty.
Maurice Carter
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August 13, 2013
Merriam Webster defines transportation as "means of conveyance or travel from one place to another." In Ms. Dodd's dictionary, there is apparently a restriction that the conveyance must be by a car. Her entire argument is flawed by the fact that she narrowly defines "transportation" to mean her preferred means of travel, ignoring that many people CHOOSE to walk, bike, or use transit. She likewise fails to understand that many of these walkers and bikers are, indeed, commuting.

Sure, she's entitled to drive a car, if that is her choice. But, she is not entitled to force her preference on everyone else. Were she to pay attention to what going on in the world outside her automobile, she would also find substantial, overwhelming evidence that many fellow Americans -- especially younger people -- are opting out of the automobile. Miles driven per person have been declining since 2004, and among the millenials the decline is even sharper.

There is a reason those road diets, bike lanes, and multi-use paths are popping up. It's what people want.
Jett Marks
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August 12, 2013
When I walk into my office building in Midtown, and step on the elevator carrying my bicycle helmet, the most common remark I hear is "I wish I could ride my bike to work."

I think we all complain about traffic when we have few alternatives to driving -- I miss nothing from my car commute up 400 -- and I think most people realize that traffic would be improved if there were fewer cars on the road. Why would we argue for making the traffic problem worse by reducing commuter's alternatives?
Mathilde Piard
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August 12, 2013
Hey Benita. How about you stay out of my awesome intown neighborhoods (the two you mentioned were Piedmont Park, across the street from which I live, and Downtown Atlanta, where I bike-commute to every day for work) and I'll stay out of your sidewalk-less Marietta world. That way, you won't cause congestion in my neighborhood with your car, and I won't have to suffer your poorly designed town.

If that's too narrow-minded and isolationist, then I suggest you have a look at the other comments here that might enlighten you on why complete streets policies are actually a good thing for congestion and for our city - for both of us.

Sincerely,

Mathilde Piard

One of the going number of "squeaky wheels"
Papermill gal
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August 14, 2013
What nasty liberal group are you affiliated with, Mathilde? Because your comment is dripping with venom, a usual indicator of one's participation in some elite, quasi-governmental org. or One World environmental activist group who believes in modeling all our neighborhoods after your urban ideal or worse, just destroying them because you can't tolerate our lifestyle.

You think you're so great because you bike to work. Well, that's not an option to many of us, so enjoy your first amendment rights to be venomous and we'll enjoy our rights to live in the suburbs, undisturbed by self righteous spandex babes with strange names. Sincerely, Suburban Mom with a Suburban, four kids, two dogs who don't have to defacate on sidewalks and the thing that really kills you environmental saviors -- oh the irony -- a real backyard.
Chris Parrish
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August 14, 2013
You go, Mathilde! Those of us who choose to live in the "city" of Atlanta are tired of commuters racing down our streets trying to bypass a perpetual freeway traffic jam. People in the 'burbs need to stop their opposition to mass transit, and get on board with the rest of the country. You can't build your way out of a traffic jam with more and more lanes. Just ask L.A.

BTW, I ride my bike seven miles to work downtown every day. Love the Beltline!
cqholt
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August 12, 2013
Why does a resident of Cobb County care what the city of Atlanta does within the city limits for its tax paying residents. Cycling is huge in Atlanta. Hope she enjoys sitting in traffic on Cobb Pkwy.
Eric hummel
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August 12, 2013
Some of the very roads that were mentioned in this story are road that already have too little width for double lanes both ways. They are miserable to drive on as a result. The road bed and available space was dictated 100years ago when the need was still dictated by carriages.

Lets be realistic. Those roads would benefit by some better planning and changing some of them to one way streets with 2-3 wider lanes and a 8ft bike lane verse the 4 lanes jammed in there now.

There is no way to realize the authors car dependit fantasy without imement domain and leveling buildings down one side of the road to add more lanes for SUV driving obese yapping on the phone parents hauling pudgy rug rats to school 3/4 of a mile away.

Atlanta was layed out before people had cars. Realize its limitations and work with in them instead of the 10lb of crap in the 5lb bag way that's NOT working.

Give people other transportation alternatives.
Larry Felton Johnson
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August 12, 2013
The approach outlined by Ms. Dodd is the recipe for creating the sort of soul-less, cookie cutter, strip mall festooned speedways which make the general quality of life in parts of the county dismal.

Obviously if the main purpose of transportation policy is to increase speed and flow of traffic, in the manner that we want our sewers to flow, the best thing to do would be to hack up every neighborhood in Cobb County into generic expressways, with just enough space on the edges to attach subdivisions and strip malls.

I think we want to set our sights higher, even within budgetary constraints. Being able to cross the street without fear for one's life, and being able to cycle to the store, are not unreasonable goals.
Sandy Farms
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August 13, 2013
Atlanta is already a soulless cookie cutter strip mall. I applaud those who are trying so desperately to make it something else by making it easier to move about without a car. The others can just stay in their comfy suburbia.

Papermill gal
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August 14, 2013
There is certainly a happy medium Larry, don't you think?

What we want is not a war with bike riders -- suburbanites value the outdoors more than any of you -- but we want the right to decide for ourselves, not have something shoved down our throats by bureaucrats or quasi-governmental entities with no accountability to the public.
Matt McGrath
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August 14, 2013
Papermill gal:

You say you want the right to decide transportation options for yourself. I think the other commenters would agree local control is entirely the point.

The dispute is to what extent the city should prioritize the needs and comfort of its own residents over those of commuters. Whom do you think should make this decision?

If you believe in small, responsive government and local control, then the answer must be the voters in the city itself. Unsurprisingly, we are expressing a preference for making our city more livable. We're not turning our backs on our neighbors, friends, and co-works in the 'burbs. We're just arguing that other, mostly local modes of transportation should not be automatically subordinate to cars from the 'burbs.

Nobody begrudges your choice to live where you live. But understand that the city is first and foremost for its full-time residents, voters and taxpayers.

Certainly no "bureaucrats" will be "ramming this down your throat." Or anyone else's throat for that matter. These projects have been planned by city government agencies controlled by elected officials. There have been numerous opportunities for community input in planning meetings, town halls, and outreach efforts.

Of course, this being the South, we should be hospitable to guests (and commuters!). I invite papermill gal to come in to town on a nice Saturday and rent some bikes for her family. Ifyou love the outdoors, you'll love the expanding network of nature and bike trails being built thanksto the efforts of Mathilde and countless others. Heck, if you pack water and snacks you can even make it all the way to Stone Mountain park and back in an afternoon. And thanks to some of these streetscape improvements, you don't have to take your life in your hands to do it.

Best,

Matt
Jett Marks
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August 14, 2013
@Papermill gal, I'm glad that we can discuss finding some happy medium regarding transportation options, but there's something I wanted to ask:

Which entity do you feel is driving these transportation choices without accountability to the public?

I think we have different ideas about how we end up with the transportation choices available in metro Atlanta and it might be good to talk about our ideas.
Joe Seconder
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August 12, 2013
Nearly 25% of trips within the US are less than 2 miles; walking and bicycling use no gas or cause pollution. American's obesity rate has doubled in the last 15 years; and walking or riding a bike is a great way to get a bit of healthy and family-friendly exercise.

Across the region, you're finding parents and elected officials coming together to add bike lanes and paths so their children can choose to walk or ride their bike to school. That makes one less car on the road in the morning if the parent normally drives their child to school. Multiply that times the thousands of parents each day driving their kids back & forth to school across Metro Atlanta, and that adds up to REAL dollars we're sending to the Middle East each day to feed our fuel addiction.

Walking & Biking make up 12% of all the trips in the US, sadly account for 14 percent of all fatal traffic crash victims on our nation's highways, yet only receive less than 1% of the total Federal transportation funding. A pedestrian or bicyclist death or injury affects us all, especially one that could be prevented through better engineering and design by accommodating all users of the road network.

In 2009, Cobb County Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a Complete Streets Policy. It states, “Cobb County will implement the Complete Streets concept by considering safe access for all users to include motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users including individuals with physical disabilities and senior citizens in the planning design construction and operation of streets within its jurisdiction.”

Reference:

http://www.bikecobb.org/cobb-completestreets

It has been the government's role at all levels for the past several decades to heavily subsidize and reallocate wealth to support motor vehicle transportation. Think bicycles shouldn’t be on the road because they don’t pay for them? Think again. We’ve been heavily subsidizing motor vehicles to use public roads for decades. Do you know where the funds come from to pay for the roads? Revenues from motor vehicle fuel taxes and other fees only account for just over 50% of the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges. The remaining amount comes from property taxes, general fund allocations, bond issues, etc. Most bicyclists I know are white collar professionals, paying property, income and sales taxes. AND they drive cars & pay fuel taxes, too.

In the Cobb 2010 penny sales tax SPLOST, $278M was budgeted for road projects. Zero was budgeted for on-street bicycling facilities.

In Georgia, bicycles are defined as a vehicle, are legally protected and are able to use the publicly owned right of way on our roads -- which we all own together.

Adding bicycling & walking accommodations are good for business and homeowners. The Northwest Georgia Regional Commission has just completed an Economic Impact Study of the Silver Comet Trail. It finds property values of homes are increased by seven percent within a ½ mile of the trail. For every $1 spent on the Silver Comet Trail expansion, Georgians gain an estimated $4.64 in direct and indirect economic benefits. This translates to an over 400% return on investment for local communities, the region and the state. Quality of life decisions, including the availability of recreational amenities like trails, are becoming ever more important factors in where people -- especially the Millennial generation -- choose to live and businesses choose to relocate.

In the realm of transportation dollars, funding for walking and bicycling projects is “budget dust”, with a substantial ROI and myriad benefits. Times change, people change. Let’s not be stuck with a 1980’s planning and transportation mindset.

Sincerely,

Joe Seconder

Founder, Bike Cobb & Board Member, Georgia Bikes
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