Do road diets have a future?

The battle over bike lanes in Playa del Rey cooled politicians enthusiasm for road diets. But Angelenos can still expect safer streets in future, says DoT leader Seleta Reynolds.

Late last year the beachside neighborhood of Playa Del Rey got into a road rage over a road diet. Some car lanes were removed to slow traffic, and bike lanes were added.

Drivers were furious, and even launched a recall effort targeting Councilman Mike Bonin. The city backtracked and got rid of the bike lanes and restored the car lanes. But they added a number of features to better protect pedestrians, including new crosswalks with flashing lights, and “pedestrian head start” traffic signals.

These compromises incensed road diet advocates in LA, and the fight appeared to cool politicians’ enthusiasm for road diets in other parts of Los Angeles.

In December 2017 Councilman David Ryu rejected a full road diet on 6th Street in midtown, which had been sought by a coalition of advocates and neighborhood groups. He said the majority of his constituents wanted more traffic safety features but did not want vehicle lanes turned into bike lanes.

All of this has called into question the future of two initiatives shaping LA’s transit future.

One is the city’s Mobility Plan 2035, which calls for 100s of miles of street redesigns aimed at encouraging alternative transportation, and improving pedestrian safety. The other is a related effort called Vision Zero. That’s a city plan to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2025.

One of powerful advocates for these goals is Seleta Reynolds, above, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. We visited her in her downtown LA office recently and asked what’s the future for road diets, after Playa del Rey.

She says the outlook is still bright: “This one particular incident happened in a very specific part of the city under very specific conditions and has not changed that desire in many other neighborhoods around the city to come back and tackle those same questions. The outcome might be a road diet or it might be something else.”

She poses the question: “who is the street for and how can we balance creating a street where people can get from A to B but also can protect everybody who’s trying to use that street? And a street that moves at a human pace is also good for the neighborhoods through which those streets pass.”

Image from Mobility Plan 2035, showing a street that accomodates all users.

One question that intrigued us was how much the creation of bike lanes and pedestrian safety are linked. Her answer was very detailed and specific with regard to road design. Here is the complete Q and A:

DnA: There have been two agendas that are going in parallel but converge with road diets, which is on the one hand the desire on the part of the bicycle community to have more bike lanes, and then the related but not necessarily directly connected program to make the streets safer. Did they converge in road diets? And is it possible to unpack them? What we saw at the end of the Playa del Rey furor was that those (car) lanes went back in. However some safety measures also went in.

Seleta Reynolds: We didn’t put the street exactly back the way that it was before because for us we knew — looking at the very tragic track record of those roads — that the status quo was going to result in more people dying. And just from an engineering ethics perspective that was not going to be acceptable. So we knew we needed to put it back a little bit differently than we found it.

What’s interesting about your question is this: So road diets and bike lanes are inextricably linked in people’s minds. But that is really not quite right.

When we do a road diet the safety benefit comes from doing two things. One is we reduce the number of lanes. So there is no longer jockeying for position when the road is not congested. There’s no longer the fastest driver setting the speed limit. It’s the most prudent driver that sets the speed limit for that particular lane.

And that has clear safety benefits. You are just orders of magnitude more likely to survive a crash when a driver is going less than 30 miles an hour than if they’re going over 40 miles an hour, particularly if you’re on foot.

The second thing it does is introduce a center turn lane. So road diets also reduce considerably rear end collisions and sideswipes that happen when turning vehicles from time to time don’t use their turn signals because that is a sign of weakness in certain parts of Los Angeles and so people don’t consistently use their turn signals. Now it gives them a place to pull out of traffic and wait for a break to make that turn. So it’s a much more efficient and safer design for drivers as well.

The last thing it does is, if you are a person standing on the sidewalk getting ready to step out and cross the street, the driver in that first lane on a four lane street can see you and probably most often stops for you — especially if you’re in a marked crosswalk.

But the driver behind that person or the driver in the next lane over can’t see you because of the sight distance and sight lines and so then we have what’s called a double jeopardy crash where either that driver gets rear ended or that pedestrian gets hit in the crosswalk.

These are the main top line safety benefits of road diets. It just so happens that one of the most cost effective things to do with that extra space is add a bike lane.

There are other things that you can do. Sometimes if there’s enough room we add diagonal parking with that extra space. If we have a lot of money we widen sidewalk with that extra space. But it’s more often that the most elegant and cost effective way to use that extra space is with bike lanes.

And so what’s happened is that people see these as bike projects and there is no question, the evidence is incontrovertible, that bike lanes are safety improvements in and of themselves, right. No matter if you take away a lane or not, you put in a bike lane it makes the streets safer and more organized for everybody but primarily for people biking.

But the road diet safety benefits are really not about the introduction of the bike lane. But it’s very difficult to get past that perception that these are bike projects because in fact they are safety projects first and the bike lanes are this added benefit that we get from them.

So what happened in Playa Del Rey sort of was a creative constraint that allowed us to go back to the drawing board and put in some other safety measures.

Now do I think that those safety measures are going to be as effective as a road diet? Time will tell. And we are going to be doing very careful and consistent and ongoing evaluation and data collection to answer that question.