A street that could use a diet

Medford's plan to cut traffic lanes on East Main has many positives

We were no big fans of Ashland's plan for a road diet on its main entrance to town, so you can imagine our reaction when we discovered that Medford is planning a similar squeeze play for one of its busier in-town connectors. Then again, maybe you can't.

We think the proposal to reduce the traffic lanes on East Main Street makes sense on a number of fronts, with the primary one being the safety of people — walkers, bikers and motorists — who use the street.

The road diet takes a four-lane street and reduces it to two traffic lanes, with a center turn lane and bike paths on either side. Traffic engineers say such a configuration can handle as much traffic, or even more, because the center turn lane eliminates back-ups caused by cars trying to turn left across two busy oncoming lanes.

Medford's Public Works Department is proposing to convert about a half-mile stretch of East Main, from Almond Street to Willamette Street, to the road diet configuration. It's worth noting that the good folks at the Public Works Department do not like the "road diet" tag, most likely because it stirred up such a hornet's nest in Ashland.

But, like it or not, that's what it is. There's even a road diet handbook that describes the plan and its advantages — and the plan in the handbook is the plan for East Main.

We should also confess that, despite our initial misgivings, we haven't heard a lot of negatives about Ashland's experiment; in fact, we've mostly heard just the opposite. There's still the high-traffic tourism season to maneuver through, so it's best to hold off on declaring it a success, but so far, so good.

We think there are even better reasons for Medford's East Main conversion, including:

  • The street is primarily a connector between downtown and residential areas to the east, as opposed to the main entrance to a town. Calming the traffic a bit before it reaches those residential areas is a good thing.
  • The four lanes that now occupy the stretch of road are snug, with little room for error, especially if you happen to be side by side with a bus or truck.
  • Sidewalks are right up against the outside lanes on both sides, putting pedestrians, including children, uncomfortably close to the traffic whizzing by.
  • Speaking of pedestrians, the area seems to have a lot of them, thanks to its proximity to local shopping, Hawthorne Park and downtown. With little street lighting, four lanes of traffic and a lot of walkers, it seems like an accident waiting to happen. Stopping to allow pedestrians to cross the street almost puts them at more risk, since there's no guarantee other drivers will do the same — or even see them.
  • The addition of bike lanes and a center turn lane will give bicyclists and pedestrians alike more room and make them more visible by cutting the visual clutter of vehicles spread across the four lanes and providing more separation between the traffic and the sidewalks.
  • Bicyclists could actually ride on East Main without fearing for their lives. A critic of the plan said bicycle use of East Main is "insignificant." That's certainly true today, because few cyclist are willing to try to squeeze onto a roadway that barely has enough room for cars, let alone bikes.
  • The plan will reduce the gas pedal pressure by the fast-and-furious drivers who are intent on saving a few seconds on their journey and do so by weaving in and out of traffic.
  • The left-hand lane for eastbound traffic already is a left-turn-only lane as it approaches Crater Lake Avenue. The new configuration would protect left turns the length of the project. (We do hope that a lengthy turn lane is established leading up to Crater Lake, as it's a common route for many drivers.

There's another reason that we don't necessarily think is a plus, but it is a reality: Transportation funding these days often comes with requirements that cities provide "multi-modal" options, that is, options for cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians. A city that accepts federal funding, as virtually all do, must do more than just pave streets for more cars.

People don't like change, so it won't be surprising if there's opposition to this idea. But we see many positives and not many negatives in the plan. And who knows? The life it saves may be the one that was about to step in front of your car.

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