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 or on Twitter @murphmonkey.

A recent visit to West Branch was a great reminder to me that placemaking is never “place made.” It’s an ongoing process as a community continues to evolve.

DSC_0520A few years ago, West Branch launched a placemaking campaign focused on cultural economic development strategies for their downtown Main Street businesses. The result was Fabulous Fridays, featuring weekly themed events throughout the summer that have boosted overall business 10-15 percent annually for the entire downtown.

Now city officials are focusing on physical design and walkability as the next phase in their placemaking battle plan.

Last fall, the Michigan Department of Transportation rebuilt the I-75 business loop at exits 212 and 215 into West Branch. City leaders want to make sure an impending MDOT project through town will include elements to make Houghton Avenue more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, instead of just a better thru-way for trucks and cars.

“We want to make sure we’re ahead of the game in going to MDOT with a plan saying this is how we’d like our downtown–now help us build it,” said City Manager Tom Youatt. “We realize this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and we want to be sure we do it wisely and we do it right.”

DSC_0517They started by bringing in national expert Dan Burden to do a walkability audit of the downtown, inviting local merchants, MDOT representatives, city staffers, and local media to walk along.

Despite being the city’s Main Street, Houghton Avenue is a multi-lane major truck route straight through the heart of town. And with one traffic light and no marked crosswalks, it’s the rare chicken who would risk getting from one side to the other. It’s the biggest challenge for merchants working to revitalize the shopping district, said Silver Lining boutique owner Peter Fabbri.

“You can’t have outdoor seating with double-trailer logging trucks roaring past,” said Fabbri, who was shouting to be heard above the screech of a passing semi’s air brakes. “I’ve got an 80-year-old tenant living upstairs and she can hardly stand the noise. It literally shakes my 114-year-old building. The only reason they’re doing it is because they can. We’ve got to quit treating this road like a super highway and treat it like what it is: the main thread in the fabric of our town.”

Burden’s suggested “road diet” would take Main Street down from five lanes to two, framed by clearly painted “transition lanes” to act as both traffic buffer and bike lanes. A roundabout at the main intersection would smooth traffic flow and offer a central focal point for the downtown.

DSC_0506More surprising to participants was his idea to reclaim some of the existing sidewalk’s unused “furniture zone” at the outer edge, using it to add back-in angled parking, with curb extensions at the intersections to increase pedestrian visibility and safety, frame in the new parking, and add potential seating and ornamental features. That and more trees would create that all-important sense of enclosure that’s currently missing, Burden said. Downtown buildings should also be required to have 70-90% glass on their storefronts to provide a sense of security and transparency and to offer more diversity and “eye appeal.”

Requiring more windows would just take changing the local building ordinance. Other improvements would require changing a state law, like one banning angle parking on a state highway, even through a city’s downtown.

DSC_0504Two currently unused spaces between buildings (called a paseo or alley) could be great moneymakers for adjacent eateries and other businesses, he said, by converting them to beautiful outdoor living areas with seating and other features that create a sense of “to go-ness.”

Creating a visual “gateway” at the Rifle River Bridge at the central business district’s east end would make drivers feel they’ve arrived at a real place, Burden said, naturally enticing them to slow down and maybe even stop for a closer look. With the soon-to-be-extended River Walk here, it’s also the perfect spot for a much-needed mid-block crosswalk.

The MDOT project isn’t slated until 2019-2020 so that gives the city plenty of time to develop a plan, seek out potential funding and—most importantly—build community support for a unified vision of the future downtown, said Youatt. But with the right motivation, that timeline could be moved up.

“Just because that process has always taken five to six years doesn’t mean it has to be that way. If we all do our part locally, maybe we can get bumped up sooner in MDOT’s schedule,” said Youatt.

Fabbri agreed.

“I understand timelines but pushing the envelope is something we should be looking at,” said Fabbri. “It’s been shown these kinds of changes can increase local business up to 30 percent. We’ve got businesses working really hard to stay afloat right now. Some might not have five years or more to wait.”