There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but a road diet comes close. Applied correctly, it has impressive advantages and little downside.
The city of Medford sent letters to 284 property owners notifying them of a plan to reduce the number of traffic lanes from four to two on East Main Street from Street — roughly from Bear Creek to the bottom of the hill — and add a dedicated left-turn center lane and bike lanes. That's the definition of a road diet.
"We don't call it that," says Medford Public Works Director Cory Crebbin. "It sounds trendy. This isn't just some fad. It's been in the transportation plan since 2003."
I live east of that stretch and so didn't get a letter. But I've driven and walked East Main since the 1980s, so whatever you call it, I'm a stakeholder.
Expect wailing and gnashing of teeth. Some people don't like change. Actually, they don't like the idea of impending change. After it happens, whaddaya know? It not only wasn't so bad, it was often a big improvement.
Yesterday's socially adept person avoided discussions of politics and religion, while today's postmodern person maintains equanimity while rubbing elbows with anarchists and tea partiers alike, with evangelical Christians, Wiccans and devotees of the Great Cosmic Twinkie.
Today's social minefields are laid around guns and traffic. In the same way a modest suggestion, say, regulating banana clips or cop-killer bullets, sends some firearms enthusiasts straight into a Second Amendment lecture climaxing with the prying and the cold dead fingers and all that, many motorists automatically turn the hairy eyeball on anything that threatens the old traffic patterns.
Remember the roundabout? Before it went in at the Highland-Siskiyou intersection, there was a huge outpouring of fear and loathing. Now traffic moves better, there are fewer accidents, and most drivers wouldn't want to go back to the old stop signs that backed up traffic and caused wrecks for years.
Road diet (or whatever you want to call it)? Same kind of deal.
Scott Henselman, who has an office on East Main and manages properties in the area, said the city seemed to be dictating to the public, likening the road diet to the ginormous radio tower the city put in for emergency services in east Medford without bothering to mention it to the neighbors.
Well, this has been in the plan for years. But this column isn't about public relations. The only actual traffic issue I've seen raised by Henselman or anybody else is that buses could impede traffic at the four bus stops in that stretch.
That's true. That is the one drawback that keeps the road diet from being a free lunch. But in an imperfect world we can sometimes pick our poison. And buses on Main Street are already a problem, impeding traffic in one lane and resulting in people swerving dangerously into the other lane to avoid the bus.
The problem on East Main Street isn't carrying capacity. It's left turns.
The road diet design eliminates people stopping in the middle of through-lanes for left turns. It also eliminates people changing lanes to pass slower cars or to speed around stopping buses.
Seattle, which is famous for its terrible traffic, has had notable success with the road diet concept. It's far from alone. About 20,000 such redesigns have gone in around the nation in recent years. Another 500 to 1,000 are being added each year.
This isn't because high-handed bureaucrats are scheming to foist something on us (well, they are, of course, but not in this case). The success of the idea is because it works.
The National Cooperative Highway Research Program has studied road diet conversions for 14 years in all 50 states. They found the plan reduces crashes by 19 to 47 percent. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the high end of that range occurred in Iowa, where the typical road diet involved a major highway going through a town with an average population of 17,000 and resulting in 3,718 to 13,908 vehicle trips per day on the road in question.
At the other end were towns in California and Washington with busier streets, typically suburban corridors outside large cities involving 6,194 to 26,326 vehicle trips a day. For details and summary, see FHA Publication No. FHWA-HRT-10-053, or visit www.fhwa.dot.gov and type in "road diet" in the search field.
The tipping point is average annual daily traffic (or as the bureaucrats like to say, AADT) of about 19,000. The road diet doesn't do well above that kind of volume, but under that it's a winner.
The AADT of East Main is around 10,000, ranging from 9,300 at Tripp Street to 11,900 at Willamette. Stats are fine, but I wanted to see for myself, so I stationed myself at several spots between Almond and Willamette five times in two days.
Between 8 and 9 a.m., there were 570 westbound cars, 12 buses (most of them school buses), zero semis, zero motorcycles and two bicycles. The big surprise, other than the light traffic and striking absence of bikes, was the number of pedestrians: 36.
Between 4 and 5 p.m. there were 420 eastbound cars, four buses, zero trucks, zero bikes and 24 pedestrians.
During the noon hour, I counted traffic both ways on two occasions, coming up with 846 and 984 cars (and 21 and 26 pedestrians) per hour. The AADT is usually about 10 times the peak load, so my numbers gibe with the city's.
Every prescription I've seen for making towns more user-friendly calls for making them more welcoming to bikes and people on foot. To be able to do that while increasing traffic safety at the same time is a no-brainer.
Imagine, if you will, driving down East Main without having to stop because somebody wants to turn left. Imagine waiting to turn left yourself without worrying about getting rear-ended by somebody sipping a latte.
How about having a lane to ride your bike in? They're talking 4-foot-wide lanes here. Which also means people will be able to walk without having traffic whizzing by inches away or drenching you when they speed through a puddle.
Can't happen too soon.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.