By Dom Nozzi
In the first decade of the 21st Century, Gainesville, Florida made the highly admirable decision to put its over-sized Main Street on a “road diet” by taking that street from four and five lanes to three lanes. Doing so would create a safer, more pleasant ambience, reduce speeding, improve the attractiveness of the street, promote the health of businesses on that street, convert the street from a “drive through” to a “drive TO” experience, and reduce overall operation and maintenance costs.
However, a number of important blunders were committed when this decision was made.
First, the decision was made to increase the size of the “turning radii” at several intersections by making the corner angle at the junctions of the two streets more of a gentle slope. Doing this was intended to make turning movements by larger vehicles more feasible. The unintended consequence, however, was that smaller motor vehicle turning movements were made much faster and less attentively, which reduced traffic safety. It also substantially increased the crossing distance for pedestrians, which significantly reduced pedestrian safety.
Such a design decision is entirely inappropriate for a town center, where slow speeds and the need to make the pedestrian (not the motor vehicle) the design imperative is essential. The last thing we should be doing in a town center is creating conditions that are unpleasant and unsafe for pedestrians. A walkable ambience is critical if town center expects any sort of competitive leverage with strip commercial areas. After all, being walkable is one of the key ways a town center can outcompete the strip areas.
Another extremely important factor that is undermined by a larger turning radius at intersections is the “small town”, historic feel that a small turn radius imparts. One of the most powerful ways to destroy a small town ambience that so many of us love is to create over-sized turn radii at intersections. Conversely, insisting on retention of a small turn radius is a superb way to retain a small town feel (not to mention retaining and promoting pedestrian safety).
The second major design blunder that Gainesville opted for in its otherwise desirable road diet of Main Street was to remove the historic, charming, lovable brick that was under the asphalt.
A brick street surface is a very effective calming device. It also creates spectacular, romantic, historic ambience (which explains why cities like Orlando, Florida have spent millions to uncover the brick underlying many of their streets. In addition, despite the conventional wisdom, bricks reduce maintenance costs in the long run — asphalt is more expensive to maintain in the long run.
What I found most puzzling about the removal of the historic brick and the increased size of turning radii on Main Street was that doing so did not even raise a peep of protest from the local historic preservation people. This despite the fact that retaining the historic brick and the historically modest turning radii on Main Street were two of the most powerful ways to engage in priceless protection of Gainesville’s historic heritage on Main Street (by preserving its historic character).
Third, the decision was made to not only keep the curbs at the same location (rather than moving them closer together), but to not add more than a tiny number of new on-street parking spaces when the excess through lane in both directions was removed. This occurred at least in part because the City opted to install in-street bike lanes on the newly configured Main Street. A decision was also made to include bus pull-outs on the new Main Street.
Several problems are associated with these decisions.
Reducing crossing distances for pedestrians by moving the curbs closer together, and adding several new on-street parking spaces are very important benefits of a road diet, because doing so dramatically improves pedestrian safety, improves the health of retail stores, improves conditions for any residential that may be on Main Street, reduces car speeds (by moving away from a “highway-oriented ambience” of an overly wide street), and creates a more human-scaled feel to the street. Not moving the curbs or adding a lot of new on-street parking after the diet was therefore unwise.
Installing in-street bicycle lanes on a street that should be designed for slow speeds and human scale undermines those objectives because the bike lanes increase street width, which increases average car speeds and increases pedestrian crossing distances. They also make it very difficult or impossible to install the on-street parking that a healthy town center thrives on. A well-designed town center main street is one that obligates slow speeds and attentive driving by motorists, and doing this allows bicyclists to safely, comfortably share the travel lane with cars, rather than needing a bicycle lane.
The City also opted to add bus pull-outs on the new Main Street. Again, doing this undermines the critical need to create a more pleasant, safe pedestrian realm. Bus pull-outs are inappropriate in a town center because they increase crossing distances for pedestrians, increase average motor vehicle speeds, reduce the amount of on-street parking that can be added to the street, and slow down bus speeds (largely because buses often find they must often wait to find an opening in car traffic before re-entering the travel lane).
Finally, the City opted not to install “post-mounted” traffic signals on the new Main Street, despite my strong recommendation that they do so. “Post-mounted” signals create a slower-speed, human-scaled ambience for a street (not to mention restoring historic design). Motorists must drive slower and more attentively with post-mounted signals, which make them highly appropriate for a town center. By contrast, the mast-arm signals the City opted to retain creates a more high-speed, highway-oriented ambience that degrades the character that a health town center needs.
In sum, Gainesville’s road dieting of Main Street was a highly desirable decision, but many ill-advised design decisions created a new street that could have been so much better for pedestrians, businesses, civic pride, and overall quality of life. Had the City avoided these design mistakes, future road diets would have seemed much more desirable, as the Main Street diet would have produced much more obvious benefits.