Complete Streets and Road Diets require rethinking the road

An example of a complete street in Copenhagen Denmark. The street above accomodates bikes, pedestrians, buses and cars. Photo by Space Magazine via Flickr.
An example of a complete street in Copenhagen Denmark. The street above accommodates bikes, pedestrians, buses and cars. Photo by Space Magazine via Flickr.

In planning communities, the terms “complete streets” and “road diets” are frequently used when discussing proposed changes to street layouts.  But for most people these terms are foreign and many people may not fully understand what it means to make a street complete or to put a road on a diet.

Salt Lake City has recently learned how different ways of approaching street design can be a difficult concept to people that have known just the “car only” type of road.

But road diets (calming traffic by reducing car lanes or using landscaping or buffers to slow traffic) and complete streets (streets that accommodate bikes, pedestrians, public transit and cars) are essential to making streets safer for everyone, including drivers.

Last week the United States Department of Transportation announced an 18-month initiative to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

According to the Department, “Injuries and fatalities of pedestrian and people bicycling have steadily increased since 2009, at a rate higher than motor vehicle fatalities.  From 2011 to 2012, pedestrian deaths rose 6 percent and bicyclist fatalities went up almost 7 percent.”

The initiative “will be a guide to creating ‘road diets’ in which roadways with lower traffic volumes are redesigned to add space for bicycle riders and pedestrians.  Studies show that road diets reduce all traffic crashes by an average of 29 percent.”

Muck like the average American, many roads in the U.S. are wider than the healthy ideal.  In Salt Lake, streets like 500 and 600 South run through downtown yet are up to seven lanes wide before connecting to Interstate 15.  Wide streets are more dangerous to cross and discourage pedestrian activity.

Putting a road on a diet involves adding traffic calming measures and quite often turning the road into a complete street, a street that accommodates pedestrian, bike and car traffic.  Ideally a road diet or complete street will also better integrate public transit into the road design.

Foothill Boulevard is another city road that can feel inhospitable to pedestrians and cyclists, on a recent field trip with leaders of the Utah Department of Transportation, City Council members voiced concerns about pedestrian safety along the busy east-side road.

Road diets and converting streets into complete streets can be a hard sell to local residents.  In 2012, area residents angrily opposed a road diet for Sunnyside Ave, a busy street connecting the city’s east side to downtown.  Mayor Ralph Becker had proposed eliminating a lane of traffic each way to convert to bike lanes.  The road is important for cyclists as it is the gateway to Emigration Canyon, a popular canyon for bike riding.  The push-back from residents led the city council to oppose the lane elimination and subsequent road diet for the Ave.

Under the city’s Complete Streets Ordinance, more of Salt Lake’s roads will be put on a diet and made “more complete” by accommodating alternative modes of transportation.  While drivers may be frustrated with traffic calming measures, the fact is that road diets make roads safer.

Salt Lake is in a unique situation because many of its roads are unusually wide, which allows room for added bike lanes.  But it is the city’s wide roads that also need the most immediate attention as they can discourage pedestrian use and be intimidating to cyclists.  The transition to complete streets makes city streets safer not just for cars, but for everyone.

Still unsure about what makes a street complete? The folks at Envision Utah have provided an informational video of what is a complete street as part of their Big Kids Little City video series:

Big Kids, Little City – Ep. 3 : Complete Streets from Envision Utah on Vimeo.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.