This crazy talk about road diets

Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 at 10:55 p.m.

Imagine taking away perfectly good traffic lanes just to give cyclists and pedestrians a fighting chance.

Like they did on North Main Street. Like they want to do on South Main Street and on Northwest Eighth Avenue.

It's crazy, right?

Only in the People's Republic of Gainesville.

Or maybe not.

Turns out that “road diets” are the coming thing. And not just in liberal college towns.

“Some Broward roads will be getting much wider sidewalks, pedestrian lighting, bike lanes buffered from cars and crosswalks with embedded lights,” the Sun Sentinel reported this week. “Other roads will go on a ‘diet' with narrower lanes or, in some cases, lanes will be eliminated to make room for the changes.”

This in a self-described “car crazy” South Florida county.

And if you think that's crazy, consider what's going on in LA, arguably the birthplace of American car culture.

“That's Right, Los Angeles Is Giving Up Car Lanes for Pedestrians,” a recent headline in Atlantic Cities announced.

Turns out the city's Broadway corridor is about to undergo an extreme makeover.

“The city council recently voted to fund an initial redevelopment of Broadway into a legitimate pedestrian plaza — reducing six lanes of road down to three in the process,” AC reported. “All told, Broadway's reconfiguration will increase pedestrian share of the road from 38 percent, at present, up to 47 percent — just about going halfsies with cars.”

And don't even get me started on New York City, where they've gone crazy over bike lanes; more than 285 miles worth at last count.

And Washington, D.C., is about to commit AutoAmerica heresy with a plan to waive parking requirements for new buildings located near the city's transit stops.

It's crazy, I know.

Heck, the last time I was in Houston the city looked like one big traffic jam. Apparently the good folks of Houston are getting sick of spending all that time sitting in gridlock. They approved a bond issue to help finance construction of 150 miles of bike trails.

Has the whole country gone crazy?

Or maybe what's going on is a profound cultural shift away from auto addiction and toward more walkable, bikeable and rideable (transit) living.

The New York Times recently heralded “an incipient shift in American behavior: recent studies suggest that Americans are buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses as each year goes by.”

As it happens, the shift away from driving is most pronounced among younger Americans, so-called millennials, who do not necessarily consider acquisition of a driver's license a mandatory rite of passage.

Indeed, part of the impetus behind New York City's embrace of bike lanes and bike sharing has come from high-tech firms that don't want to lose talented young workers to rivals located in more walkable, bikeable and rideable communities.

You know, the sort of workers that Innovation Gainesville and UF's Innovation Hub are striving mightily to attract and retain.

When you look at it that way, maybe retooling Main Street wasn't such a terrible idea after all.

And for all of the indignation we've been hearing over the proposed sale of a few acres of Loblolly Woods, that city nature preserve remains remarkably inaccessible to the public, thanks to fast-moving traffic that helps make Northwest Eighth Avenue a pedestrian-and-bike hostile environment.

Would reducing traffic lanes and adding bike lanes on Northwest Eighth between NW 22nd Street and NW34th Street really throw Gainesville into gridlock? Paralyze the city?

Listen, nobody's talking about getting rid of cars, just slowing them down. Slowing traffic is key to creating walkable, bikeable and rideable communities. It is key to improving the quality of life and enhancing urban business opportunities.

For all of the fuss we've heard over narrowing Main Street from Northwest Eighth Avenue to Depot Avenue, average travel time along that corridor has increased by just 29 seconds. Worse case during rush hour? A 105 second delay.

Gainesville aspires to be a “complete streets” community where all users are entitled to “share the road.” Crazy as that sounds, we're hardly alone.

It's happening all over the country, from “car crazy” South Florida to LA, where crazy-about-cars culture was born.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. He is executive director of Bike Florida.

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