This post originally appeared as the cover story for the NMA Foundation’s Driving Freedoms Magazine Spring 2019.
Driving can sometimes be a daily grind. But when cities reconfigure the streets you take every day—presumably, to make them safer—that daily grind often seems much worse. The war on cars, for many drivers, is no longer an abstract construct when the commute that used to take 20 minutes is now 40 minutes because of traffic restrictions. Inconveniencing drivers is the byproduct of the Vision Zero war to get us out of our cars. Road diets on arterial streets in urban cores are the weapon of choice.
The primary function of an arterial roadway is to deliver traffic from collector roads to freeways, expressways, and highways between urban centers at the highest level of service (LOS) possible. LOS is a qualitative measure used to analyze streets and intersections by categorizing traffic flow and assigning quality levels of traffic based on vehicle, speed, density, and congestion.
Due to the Vision Zero and Complete Streets movements, city and county officials are feeling the pressure or actively advocating to replace LOS analyses with a different set of metrics that account for other street users such as pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders, buses, and rideshare vehicles. Ironically, Americans are driving more today than ever before. Also, census statistics show that the percentages of pedestrian and bicyclist commuters are just 2.7 and 0.6 percent respectively.
Converting car lanes for protected bike use, often along both sides of the street, causes gridlock, frustration, and unsafe traffic conditions. When congestion blocks roads regularly used by drivers, they will naturally divert to residential streets that aren’t designed to handle the traffic load, causing further bottlenecks, potentially unsafe conditions, and neighborhood frustration and hostility.
According to a 2004 Federal Highway Administration Report on the Evaluation of Lane Reduction “Road Diet” Measures,
“Under most average daily traffic (ADT) conditions tested, road diets have minimal effects on vehicle capacity, because left-turning vehicles are moved into a common two-way left-turn lane. However, for road diets with ADTs above approximately 20,000 vehicles, there is a greater likelihood that traffic congestion will increase to the point of diverting traffic to alternate routes.”
The Mar Vista area of Los Angeles currently features a 0.8-mile road diet along Venice Boulevard. Once a six-lane street, the restriction cut the street down to two lanes in each direction to accommodate a parking-protected bike lane on either side. Mid-block pedestrian crossings and expanded crosswalks further limit vehicular traffic. The city also later added modified right-turn lanes that include a short merge into the bicycle lane.
In 2014, newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a Great Streets Initiative. Venice Boulevard was one of 40 streets in the city that was considered part of the High Injury Network, an integral part of LA’s Vision Zero Action Plan. All streets in the network were now primed for road diet makeovers.
Before beginning the project, Los Angeles had to take control of the street from Caltrans, the state department of transportation, since Venice Boulevard is considered an arterial street. Many state transportation agencies govern arterial streets due to their classification as state highways.
The LADOT finally completed the Venice Boulevard safety improvement project in June 2017. A month later, city officials hosted an open house to showcase the “One-Year Temporary Road Diet Project.” They maintained at the open house and in written documents that progress reports would be issued at three-month, six-month and one-year milestones. The officials also gave assurances that area residents could provide input on the temporary street arrangement.
In December 2018, the project was made permanent with no reports and no input from residents and business owners. Also in December, the City Council Transportation Committee unanimously denied an appeal from Westside LA Neighbors, an opposition advocacy group. The Council asserted that street safety improvements are categorically exempt from full California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.
Recently the state updated rules that outline various types of projects that are exempt from CEQA. (More on the future of CEQA in the sidebar.) The Mar Vista road diet falls under those parameters: reduction in lanes, removal of on-street parking spaces, and the addition of bike lanes.
In early March 2019, the Los Angeles City Council approved the project. Westside LA Neighbors has filed a second lawsuit against the city to get rid of the controversial road restrictions.
Data from the California Highway Patrol indicate that accidents increased 19 percent in the 12 months after the road diet implementation compared to the previous 12 months. Also, by the end of 2018, 22 businesses had closed on this section of Venice Boulevard.
In the same time frame, the LADOT suddenly removed two lanes of traffic to add bike lanes on four streets in the Playa Del Rey area: Vista del Mar, Pershing Drive, Culver Boulevard and Jefferson Boulevards.
Fierce motorist backlash began immediately, and a new group was born, Keep LA Moving. By October 2017, Los Angeles brought back the vehicular traffic lanes and instead improved crosswalks, set out speed feedback signs and placed improved stoplight signals at intersections.
Keep LA Moving Founder John Russo stated that at the end of the four months of road diets, monthly traffic accidents exceeded the previous year’s rate by over 200 percent. Local businesses on the street saw an immediate impact with month-over-month sales dropping from 20 to 40 percent. The LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce and 63 businesses sent a letter to the city imploring it to restore the traffic lanes.
Since then, the Keep LA Moving group has expanded to nearby areas. Pasadena quickly squelched a road diet plan for Orange Grove Boulevard, a 2.9-mile stretch north of the 210 Freeway, which would have reduced a four-lane street to two, with bike lanes on both sides and a left-hand center turn lane for use in both directions. Area residents formed the group called Keep Pasadena Moving, and at least 400 residents came out at several city council meetings to oppose the measure.
Due to the many requests for help around the country, Russo recently started a national nonprofit called Keep the US Moving. Matthew Schneider from Waverly, Iowa, helped found the national group after his hometown went through a similar road diet experience.
In August 2018, the city council voted to reduce one of Waverly’s main streets, Bremer Avenue, from four lanes down to two. By October, the road restriction was complete, and now the city is dealing with traffic congestion all hours of the day, a reduction in business on the street, and overall driver frustration.
Schneider says the most frustrating thing is that the city council had already said NO to the road diet after gathering input from residents. A new council was voted in soon after and with little warning, voted while many residents were enjoying out-of-town summer vacations. Two months later, the town of nearly 10,000 received the unwanted road diet.
In the first 17 weeks of the Waverly road diet, reported traffic accidents increased 33 percent even though officials expected that crashes would drop 50 percent. Waverly is a river town, and Bremer Avenue is the only access to the town’s bridge. Bremer is also the primary access road used for emergency vehicles. Seventy percent of the town’s volunteer firefighters use the avenue to get to their station quickly.
Local motorist activists are fighting back in cities such as Atlanta, Seattle, the New York City borough of Queens, and in smaller cities such as Tallahassee, Florida; Tahlequah, Oklahoma; Phoenix, Oregon; and La Crosse, Wisconsin. The list is growing almost weekly, according to Russo. Public officials pushing road diets seem to be using the same playbook with the same rhetoric and ideology.
Road diets can have deadly consequences, too.
Ask the people who were escaping Paradise, California last fall after a wildfire quickly raged out of control. With only two ways out of the mountain community, city officials from years past believed it would be a great idea to reduce the main street from four lanes to two to implement a road diet, even though they had been warned this might cause problems during an emergency evacuation. Shortly after the November 8, 2018 fire erupted, residents were forced to abandon their cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic and flee on foot. The Camp Fire was the deadliest wildfire in the US since 1918, killing 85 residents and destroying nearly 18,800 structures, with most of the damage occurring within the first four hours.
Push back against road diets by motorists is the path to change. The NMA will continue to get the word out through our War on Cars Watch weekly blog, newsletters, and by working closely with groups like Keep the US Moving, but effective opposition must include actively engaged local activists.
If you have an interest in this issue or any other motorist rights issue, please join like-minded folks from around the country who have made a commitment to support the NMA.