At last week’s open house on the NE 125th St. rechannelization, I attempted to engage with one of the vocal naysayers M.J. wrote about yesterday. No matter my assurances, he kept repeating, “it just seems like a big expense to a lot of people for a benefit to a very small number of people.” In fact, the expense is small, and the benefits accrue to everyone who uses the road.
The truth is, traffic engineers have discovered that many of our roads are “overdesigned,” that is, they have a lot more vehicle capacity than necessary. This benefits no one — unless you count people who are determined to speed, despite the cost to everyone around them.
While the number of lanes is reduced in a ‘road diet,’ they are approved by traffic engineers who still maintain capacity to carry the cars they need to. A center turn lane allows people who are turning left not to back up other vehicles behind them. Engineers also can often find extra space for cars to queue at intersections in right-turn only lanes, for example. And yes, the reconfiguration often opens up ample space for bike lanes.
Road diets benefit us all, pedestrians the most. I should know — I live on a street that has been converted from four to three lanes. I am grateful that the center turn lane gives me a refuge so that I can cross one direction of traffic and then wait for cars traveling in the other direction to yield, or, more common, to ignore me and pass by. Have you ever had a driver courteously let you cross the street, only to have another driver in the adjacent lane speed by? Federal guidelines do not allow striping a crosswalk across four lanes of traffic without a traffic signal, since this gives pedestrians a false sense of security while putting them in a multiple threat environment. I bet it wouldn’t take you more than a few seconds to come up with one or more of these scary crossings near your home if you live in Seattle.
But the biggest factor in most collisions is speed. On 125th, for example, the 85th percentile speed is 39 mph in a 30 mph zone. This means that a majority of traffic is traveling at a deadly speed, and nearly 15% of vehicles are more than 10 mph over the legal limit.
If hit by a car going 30, a vulnerable road user will be injured but still has a good chance of surviving. At 40 mph, not so much. Traffic engineers are sensitive to this fact.
They also know that certain roads are appropriate for rechannelization, and others are not. The city looks at the number of vehicle trips, and knows that four-lane configurations may be necessary if more than 20,000 trips per day are made. In Seattle, about 25 arterial streets have been ‘dieted’ since the early 1970s, so rechannelization is nothing new.
The problem is, tired arguments against road diets are getting old. We know that they make the street safer for all users. They reduce the number of speeders, and crash rates. And they delay traffic only a little if at all — the center turn lane can actually help drivers maneuver around people turning left, keeping them from getting stuck.
From Stone Way, to Nickerson Street (finally under construction), and now NE 125th St, we hear the same concerns. Now, a group organizing to stop improvements to 125th is passing around an anonymous flyer that misinforms local residents about the rechannelization and urges them to email their letters of opposition to the SDOT Director, mayor, city traffic engineer, and strangely, six of the nine city council members (are they special for some reason?).
Consequently, the bicycle and pedestrian program needs to hear from you if you support this project at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please take a moment to express your support for this rechannelization and other road and trail projects around the city.
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