Road diets: Could eliminating lanes ease congestion?

BOSTON — The beginning of a new year creates a lot of discussions around diets, but not all of them focus on food. Road diets are a concept that involves reducing lanes for cars and has nothing to do with reducing calories.

When traffic congestion is already so bad, this is the last thing a lot of drivers want to hear, but proponents of road diets believe re-configuring existing roads can actually improve the overall quality of life for a region and perhaps even get people moving more efficiently.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone has embraced this concept for his densely packed city. “We start with the premise that we want to build a city for people. If we plan a city for cars, that’s what we are going to get.”

Curtatone also likes that road diets can help Somerville meet its Climate Action Goals.

East Broadway is one example of a road diet. Cars now get one lane in each direction instead of two. There are dedicated lanes for buses, bikes, and cars that need to make a left-hand turn. Sidewalks were also widened for pedestrians.

“By implementing a dedicated bus lane, we saw greater efficiency of bus travel,” explained the Mayor. “We have seen a reduction of more than 2,000 vehicles per day on that stretch of roadway and decreased speeds. This is about calming our roads.”

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Boston traffic officials are considering a road diet on Centre Street in West Roxbury. Drivers there would also lose a lane in each direction but there would be a third lane in the middle for left turns.

Stephen Morris, a local realtor, is one of the founding members of the West Roxbury Safety Association, a group fighting the redesign of West Roxbury’s commercial zone.

Morris is concerned side streets will get “Wazed” and become overused and unsafe. He also worries first responders will be snarled in traffic. “The New York Fire Department Union has already issued a statement that they are opposed to all the road diets that been put into effect in New York City because response times have increased dramatically.”

Instead, the WRSA, which has collected several thousand signatures in opposition to the road diet, is proposing some new lights on the crosswalks.

“The system works here,” said Morris. “It just needs some tweaking.”

Chris Dempsey of Transportation for Massachusetts believes road diets can work but understands why drivers are worried about losing lanes. “People usually think that the more space the better, but when you have certain road alignments, you can actually cause more conflict than you necessarily want.”

>> More: Lack of affordable housing is worsening state’s congestion problems

When money is tight for big projects, Dempsey says road diets are often a cost-effective way to make existing infrastructure more efficient. “Sometimes what you hear in transportation is that the silver bullet solution is to build a really big, expensive project, when in fact what’s the case is that we already have pretty good infrastructure in place and we just need to use that infrastructure a little bit differently.”

Passions around this issue are high in West Roxbury because a pedestrian was killed in a crosswalk last year. In recent years, a number of people have also been injured trying to cross Centre Street or when riding bikes along that road.

>> More: Camera-based enforcement pitched as congestion buster

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