From guest writer Matthew Schneider, Keep Waverly (Iowa) Moving. He is also working with the newly formed national coalition Keep the US Moving which is working to help local residents across the country fight road diets and traffic calming in their cities and towns.
At the end of an extremely tense two-hour long meeting in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Mayor Jason Nichols asked the clerk for a role call to vote to kill the proposed road diet on Downing Street. The Tahlequah council chambers was standing room only, a somewhat rare event in this otherwise mostly sparse chambers in this eastern Oklahoma town of around 16,000 people. The clerk read the names and it was a unanimous “YES” from every council member to kill the Downing Street road diet. The Tahlequah council chambers loudly filled city hall with cheers and applause.
Moments earlier Angie Taylor, owner of the Sav-a-Lot Grocery on Downing Street made a passionate plea to council:
“I have never been against bike-ability or walkability. We have a lot of customers that walk to our store. I have always wanted really good sidewalks all the way up Downing. We’ve got a bike rack for our store. I think that’s extremely important. But honestly, I can sell more groceries to people in their cars, most people drive cars.”
“Most businesses will tell you no one came and asked them how this was going to affect them. We collect a lot of sales tax and any change you make to sales on Downing Street affects the city. It has been so frustrating to me. This is my kid’s future, this is where we will live always. I don’t want to waste my time fighting the city, and I don’t want this to be what this is. It has been a very frustrating experience. I’m here because I love Tahlequah and I want good things. But if you do things without considering the business owners and the impact economically you’re making a very bad mistake.”
The over 3000 residents who signed the petition in just 10 days leading up to this council meeting agree a Road Diet on Downing Street is a very bad mistake. Downing Street is also the primary corridor that connects the city to the hospital.
For the City of Tahlequah and the community that came together to help Keep Tahlequah Moving the system worked as it is supposed to. This event united the citizens and the city and, I suspect, we will see great things from Tahlequah moving forward.
However, that’s not the case for dozens of cities large and small across the nation who are being divided by their city government who are implementing Complete Streets agendas on short order without consultation from critical stakeholders like fire departments, emergency responders, citizens and business owners.
Other Cities Struggle with Road Diets
In New York City, a motorist stuck in traffic filmed a New York City Fire Department Paramedic with siren blaring and lights flashing stuck in gridlock traffic. The resident said with alarm. “FOUR MINUTES HAS PASSED! Four entire minutes he hasn’t budged.”
In Stevens Point, Wisconsin every single business on Stanley Street opposed the road diet. Stanley Street resident, Jeremy Niemeczyk stated in a public forum:
“The director said that seconds would be the difference in travel time. (Referring to the difference in travel time with the proposed road diet) I don’t know about you, but in my whole life I’ve heard that in emergencies, seconds matter. Stanley Street is a direct route from the hospital to the Interstate (I-39). Seconds matter.”
Cliff Musgrave, Akron, OH firefighter at Station 10 sent an email to the Akron Beacon journalist Bob Dyer about a road diet on Kenmore Boulevard:
“The planners, who argue that one of the reasons is safety, somehow overlooked the flow of emergency traffic. Kenmore Boulevard is a main thoroughfare and the best route to certain parts of the neighborhood. However, during any traffic period at all, it has become impassable for emergency traffic. If there are vehicles traveling in both directions on the boulevard, they have no way of moving out of the way of emergency vehicles when cars are parked on the side. There is nowhere they can go! Nor can we get around them.”
In my hometown of Waverly, Iowa, emergency response was clearly overlooked. Waverly has an all-volunteer fire department and a majority of volunteers responding to the fire must use road-dieted Bremer Avenue to get to the fire station in their personal vehicle.
After a recent fire call that came in during the busy drive home time, a resident took to Facebook and said:
“The city can deny it all they want, but I personally witnessed the effect the road diet is having. Some emergency was going on and two volunteer firefighters were stuck in traffic and could not get to where they were going in short order.”
Bremer Avenue carries thousands of people into the emergency room annually and the slowdown of paramedics and people driving themselves or a loved one to the hospital has also been witnessed by dozens of people.
Traffic Safety Data justifying Road Diets is Flawed
After the Salt Lake City Transportation Department claimed that putting a road diet on 900west in Poplar Grove, Utah would make this road “safer” and reduce crashes by 19-47%, crashes went up 200 percent after the road diet was established in late 2017.
The problem with the original crash study data is this: the data, going back to 1982, was for much less busy corridors that had been gathered from 15 Iowa cities. For example, roadways in Cresco, Iowa which carry 8,000 vehicles daily with intersections that carry 3,000 are not comparative to road systems like 900west that carry over 13,000 vehicles with another 13,000 intersecting it. The heavy intersection volume, combined with an at-grade railroad crossing are likely the cause of crashes going up over 200 percent. Clearly not safer!
Escaping the Wild Fire in Paradise, California
After a failed evacuation in Paradise nearly a decade ago, a California grand jury ordered work to be done on the town’s two evacuation routes. The city ignored those requests and actually did the opposite. They installed road diets, bike lanes and bump outs. Many residents, including City Council member Michael Zuccolillo warned of the grave mistake they were making.
Fast forward to November 2018, the traffic calming measures that were put in place magnified a different tragedy of a very fast moving wild fire that engulfed the entire town. Dozens had to abandon their cars and flee on foot. This could have been a different scenario perhaps if the town had not put in road diets.
Emergency Responders Need a Voice in any Proposed Road Diets
Emergency responders are saying NO to road diets! In nearly every case, however, city leaders are not listening. Local fire codes are being ignored and dismissed. Emergency responders are also intimidated for speaking out. These are the folks that we rely on to help us on perhaps the worse day of our lives and city leaders need to listen to what they have to say with regards to road diets. Our life may depend on an emergency responder getting to us in time.
Too often, though, city leaders see dollars signs in the way of federal or state funding that allows them to do other infrastructure projects with a contingent that they also need to put in a road diet. But this is not the way it should be done. Using government funding to force road diets on already at or over capacity streets, roads and bridges is not smart nor safe. Not listening to all the residents of the community to understand the impact on emergency services, emergency evacuations, commute times, road safety and local businesses is not the way we want our society to work.
We can do better. We should do better.
If you have a road diet situation looming or already in a street you frequently travel, get involved. Individuals can make a difference and we need you to step up!
Matthew Schneider is an entrepreneur and business owner on Road Dieted Bremer Avenue, in Waverly IA. Matthew is co-founder of Keep Waverly (Iowa) Moving and the newly formed national coalition Keep the US Moving which is working to help local residents across the country curb road diets and traffic calming in their cities and towns. Iowa House Representative Sandy Salmon introduced HF-41 in the Iowa House in an effort to curb misplaced road diets.