Many a traditional main street has suffered from bloated roads: where a street was once lined with bustling sidewalks and businesses, the pavement was expanded more and more in the name of moving traffic, at the expense of parking, sidewalks, and eventually the health of the businesses themselves. Through traffic doesn’t spend dollars while it’s speeding by, after all.

This graphic from NACTO's Urban Street Design Guide shows how road diets can improve safety and traffic flow.

This graphic from NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide shows how road diets can improve safety and traffic flow.

Enter the road diet. A silly name, perhaps, but it’s an enormously important concept for community wellbeing.

A road diet takes a wide road and skinnies it down—or, at least, skinnies down the amount of space devoted to moving vehicles by quickly. The goal is a more balanced street: one that provides not just for the orderly movement of through traffic, but also supports access by people on the sidewalk, people on bikes, people getting on a bus, people parking their cars and going into a store, people unloading delivery trucks. In short, a street that works for, rather than against, the area around it.

How big is too big?

The best candidates for a road diet are one-way streets with three (or more!) travel lanes, or two-way streets with two travel lanes in each direction.  If you have these types of streets in a traditional business district or neighborhood, they were almost definitely widened at some point, and probably widened more than they need to be for current traffic needs.

Take a look at the traffic counts on these streets. As a quick rule of thumb, each through traffic lane can carry about 10,000 cars per day—or a little less, if there are a lot of driveways, on-street parking, or similar things that slow traffic. A 4-lane two-way road with less than 20,000 cars daily can probably be 3 lanes (one each way and one left turn) with no loss of capacity and fewer severe crashes. A 3-lane one-way with under 20,000 cars daily can probably work well as a 2-lane one-way.

Also look at how wide the lanes are. Many of these roads were built with 12- or even 13-foot wide travel lanes, but experience shows that these wide lanes actually lead to more severe crashes than narrower lanes—people drive more cautiously when the lines are closer together. As a result, a 10.5-foot wide lane (11 if there’s significant bus or truck traffic) can be safer while still carrying traffic effectively.

What do you do with the leftover pavement?

After you examine the number of lanes and the width of those lanes, chances are you’ll have space left over between the curbs.

The Kalamazoo PlacePlan led to a road diet on Portage Street, improving access to Washington Square.

The Kalamazoo PlacePlan led to a trial road diet on Portage Street, improving access to Washington Square.

With 8 feet of leftover width, you can add either on-street parking on one side or a bike lane on the other. With 12 feet (such as on a 3-lane one-way to 2-lane conversion) you can put parking on one side and a bike lane on the other.

In either case, you’ve just provided better access for more people, ideally without any costs for concrete or asphalt—just paint and signs. As an added benefit, moving traffic is now separated from the sidewalk a little bit, providing a safer and more inviting place for people to walk, which means more customers walking into businesses or more attractive homes.

A 2012 MDOT research project showed that 4-to-3 lane road diets could reduce crashes by as much as 40%, and provided additional recommendations for planning and implementing such projects.

Better streets support investment

Improving access, safety, and comfort on a street supports a healthy business environment.  For an example, take a look at West Cross Street in Ypsilanti. West Cross has been the front door to Eastern Michigan University for over 150 years, and has long had a small, convenience-oriented business district.

West Cross is also M-17, though, and in the 1970s was made into a one-way street with 3 lanes in one direction. By the 1990s, the business district was struggling, with high business vacancy and turnover, and many of the buildings in disrepair. Remaining business owners pointed to the high-speed traffic and lack of parking as a major challenge.

Ypsilanti's West Cross Street before the road diet--a 3-lane race track through the neighborhood.

Ypsilanti’s West Cross Street before the road diet–a 3-lane race track slicing through the neighborhood.

In the early 2000s, the city worked with MDOT to implement a road diet as the key piece of a neighborhood plan. Since the street only had about 15,000

A parking lane, improved crosswalks, and better organized sidewalk support foot traffic to businesses.

A parking lane, improved crosswalks, and better organized sidewalk support foot traffic to businesses.

vehicles per day, it could be changed from 3 through traffic lanes to 2 (still one-way), creating enough space for both on-street parking on the left and a bike lane on the right. This only required restriping the street and adding signs and parking meters, but worked well enough that the city implemented step two in 2011, utilizing TAP funding to add intersection bumpouts, stamped concrete crosswalks, and street trees.

These changes have supported significant reinvestment in the business district over the last decade, with some support through façade matching grants by the Ypsilanti DDA and Washtenaw Eastern Leaders Group. At least 10 new businesses have opened in just a few blocks, and several existing businesses have expanded or made significant façade improvements.

While there’s plenty of work left to do—the street remains a high-speed, one-way strip that can make it difficult for visitors to find specific businesses—both the streetscape improvements and improved business conditions have made West Cross a much better front door to EMU and amenity for neighborhood residents.

The most significant rehab created four new business spaces across from EMU with lofts above, and an extended sidewalk bumpout for outdoor cafe seating. Developer Andrew O'Neal notes he would have thought twice about the project if the road diet hadn't created on-street parking--and looks forward to eventual two-way traffic.

The most significant rehab created four new business spaces across from EMU, with lofts above and an extended sidewalk bumpout for outdoor cafe seating. Developer Andrew O’Neal notes he would have thought twice about the project if the road diet hadn’t created on-street parking–and looks forward to eventual two-way traffic.

A number of smaller building and facade rehabs have helped make the corridor more attractive overall.

A number of smaller building and facade rehabs have helped make the corridor more attractive overall.

Richard Murphy is a program coordinator for the League. You may contact him by email at at rmurphy@mml.org or on Twitter @murphmonkey.

Spoiler alert: If you like to be surprised when you pick up the League’s Review, maybe wait until you get the July issue to read this post—I’m going to be talking a bit about the projects from my article in that issue, because word count made me leave these notes out.

I recently sat down with the heads of two projects from the Public Spaces Community Places crowdgranting program; both projects adaptively reused vacant Ypsilanti properties as community spaces.  One, the Ypsilanti Farmers Marketplace, has made an old drive-through bank mini-branch and adjacent 1930s warehouse into an indoor/outdoor market, event space, retail garden supply store, and demonstration kitchen.  The other, Cultivate Café and Tap House, turned an unassuming auto repair garage into a community room.

In both cases, the “business”-like activities of the managing non-profit are a critical piece of the placemaking effort’s success, and good reminders that getting the physical design of the space right is not enough on its own.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

The Marketplace is teeming with people on market days: over 300 people visited in the first hour of the opening Tuesday earlier this month.  But what happens the rest of the week? Many farmers market sites sit vacant and empty outside of market days.  To address this, Growing Hope has opened “Ypsiplanti”, a hole-in-the-wall garden supply inside the old bank building.  Not only does this fill a gap in downtown Ypsilanti, which previously lacked such a store, but it also draws some traffic to the site 6 days a week. The level of activity certainly doesn’t compare to market days, but having a staff member on the site provides “eyes on the street” and keeps the marketplace from feeling like dead space.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

The founders of Cultivate, similarly, use the café’s coffee and beer to feed the nonprofit space’s function as a community gathering place, in terms of both revenue and people.  Beverage sales pay for the few paid staff and keeping the lights on, with additional proceeds and tips going towards the organization’s charitable work of fighting hunger. Running a coffee shop certainly doesn’t qualify as “easy”, but providing people a cup of coffee while they talk is a way to raise money in the process of the community building work, rather than having to constantly set aside that function in order to focus on organizing fundraiser events.

As well, coffeehouses and pubs have set the model for “third places” for centuries for good reason—they are places people go individually and have spontaneous interactions, rather than relying on organized events to get people together.  While I have attended specific, planned events at Cultivate, I’ve much more often gone there because, well, I wanted coffee, and wound up talking to someone I ran into. The first draft of my Review article was written there, which was perhaps a poor choice for productivity, but a good one for community: I was distracted repeatedly in talking to a neighbor, a city councilmember, a DDA board member, and a local historian who wanted to pick my brain about past property ownership on a particular street.

While the central focus of our placemaking work has been on the physical space—the piece cities tend to have the most direct control over—these examples highlight the importance of offering people everyday reasons to use the space. In both of these cases, the physical space and the activity generation were handled by the same organization, in conscious coordination. Cities may not be able to copy exactly these models in their own public space projects, but should actively look for partners who can provide reasons for people to use the space once it’s there.