Road Diets

Balanced meals and reasonable portions aren’t the only type of diet that leads to the health and wellness of our citizens; many of our region’s streets need Road Diets.

What is a Road Diet?

Although the concept takes many shapes in practice, the general idea is to reduce the number of travel lanes and dedicate that space to some other use. For example, a four lane street like the example shown can be converted to include two travel lanes in each direction, a center turning lane, and two bike lanes. In some cases the goal might be to add more on-street parking.


A typical 4 lane street

A typical 4 lane street

Reimagined Version of the Typical 4 Lane

Reimagined Version of the Typical 4 Lane

More significant Road Diets involve moving the curb to expand the space for pedestrians Although these come at a significantly higher cost than the example shown above, they provide the biggest transformation. For a local example, see the plans for 20th St. in the Crossroads District of Kansas City, MO.

A Better 20th St. (image credit: El Dorado Inc.)

A Better 20th St. (image credit: El Dorado Inc.)

What are the benefits of Road Diets?

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Our transportation network must provide better access to active living and Road Diets are a way to accomplish this. Thanks to the traffic calming effect that a Road Diet can bring, the speed of the city slows to be more compatible with human scale activity. Slow traffic and life on the sidewalk will flourish.

Additionally, biking and walking should be part of a larger strategy to get us healthy and fit. Many people (up to 60% by some studies) are interested in biking for leisure or transportation but feel unsafe. These average folks need infrastructure like buffered bike lanes to increase comfort.

To make us healthy, we’ve got to give streets, our most valuable public spaces, back to people!

The biggest danger to pedestrians and bicyclists is speeding cars. The threat of a fatal pedestrian crash increases exponentially as speed increases above 20 mph. The most successful walkability improvement is one that slows cars down. Road diets like this one in Charlotte, NC are proven strategies to slow traffic and improve safety for all road users including drivers. The City of Portland, OR estimates that it has prevented 37 crashes per year by implementing Road Diets on just three streets.

Driving is a luxury that not everyone can afford. We must invest in alternative transportation to provide job access to those who can't afford to drive. What does it say about us as a culture if we’ve built a transportation system in which the only way many of us can get to and from work is by a mode that costs thousands of dollars per year to own and operate?

The parts of our metro area with the poorest health outcomes are mostly built on older street grid with minimal opportunity for new trails and sidewalks. The only opportunity to provide access to active transportation is to work with what is already built and Road Diets are a great way to do this.

Simply put, we've got to get with the rest of the world. We can't be the entrepreneurial hub we wish for without being a place where people want to live. Nobody moves to Kansas City because they hear our streets are great for driving fast. However, people do move to places like Portland and Minneapolis for the ability to live car free.

In the case of the more extravagant Road Diets green infrastructure can improve the environmental impact of the our streets. Street trees help filter the air and soak up stormwater. Bioswales, rain gardens and permeable pavement further reduce the impact of stormwater.

The “just paint” Road Diets are extremely cost effective because they result in the previously mentioned social benefits at minimal expense when coordinated with routine street resurfacing. For the cost of improving a single intersection with a HAWK signal we can repaint many blocks of a 4-lane street as a much safer 3-lane.

Even the more extravagant Road Diets is inexpensive when you factor in the cost savings from not having so much excess pavement to maintain. There is also a case to be made for the financial benefit of the healthier society that results from a walkable community. Oh, and the resulting traffic and land use patterns result in an environment that is more friendly to local business.

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns sums it up nicely here:

By removing lanes, narrowing lanes, adding bike lanes and putting on-street parking back in place, road diets have been shown to improve traffic flow and increase safety for everyone. And they do this with – wait for it – LESS money, not more.

Why are cities, who benefit financially not only from the reduction in expense but also from the dramatic increase in financial productivity of the resulting land use pattern, not demanding the less-is-more approach of the road diet?

What about traffic?

Road Diets don't cause traffic congestion and they have minimal impact on traffic flow when applied in the right circumstances. A 3 lane street serves 20,000 cars per day nearly as smoothly as a street with 4 lanes.

But should this even matter? Should free flowing traffic ever be a higher priority than the safety, health, and vitality of our neighborhoods? Bill Lindeke of puts it this way:

[A]chieving a high traffic volume always comes at a cost. In this case, the cost is increased [crashes] and far less safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people living in these urban neighborhoods.

When a decision maker says “we can’t do that because of traffic,” to me they are really saying that they value traffic volumes over safety.