Bravo! The road diet works

By From page A6 | August 20, 2014

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I knew in the back of my mind that the Fifth Street road diet was due to be implemented this summer. But when I finally drove its length, from east to west, I was startled on a couple of fronts.

I had just done a little shopping at Target in Mace Ranch. I decided to take East Second to L Street back to my home in west Central Davis. I turned left onto Fifth, where the new lane configuration starts (or ends, depending on your perspective).

As long as I can remember — since 1967 when I was 3 years old and attending the UC Davis preschool — Fifth Street has always had four car lanes, two in each direction, and no designated bike paths. So it was a bit of a shock to my system to be driving westbound in the single car lane with a new bike lane — not yet completely striped at that point — on my right.

The second surprise, pleasantly so, was how smoothly the road diet seems to work. Granted, we won’t know for sure until the students are back in September and several months of experience have accumulated.

But on my first trip — taken at 5 p.m. on a weekday, when Fifth Street traffic is its heaviest — and several more since then, I have had no problems.

The road diet works just as its proponents suggested it would. The blockages, caused by the lack of dedicated left-turn lanes in the obese road configuration, have eased. In my experience, so far, it takes less time to travel from Russell Boulevard and A Street to Fifth and L. There seem to be fewer stops, and the stops seem to be shorter.

If there is one fault I have noticed it is with drivers turning right. They seem reticent to fully pull into the bike lanes before they make a right turn. That may be because the bike lanes are somewhat narrow.

It’s hard to say how much opposition there was — or remains — to the road diet. Some of it, I think, was simply based on intuitive logic. If you take the traffic that was in four lanes and you cut that down to two, they figured you would be creating a bottleneck and, as drivers of automobiles who used that thoroughfare, they foresaw no benefit from the change.

Yet intuition is not always right. Aside from engineering studies that predicted traffic throughput would improve, scores of other cities and towns have had years of empirical experience with road diets, and those, too, have been a smashing success. If ours did not work, it would have been the exception to the rule.

Others, understandably, were upset with the expense. Including upgrades to sidewalks and all new traffic signals, the change cost the taxpayers of Davis about $800,000. Another $1.1 million came from grants. The economy opponents didn’t want to invest any one-time funds on the road diet when crumbling streets all around town are not being repaved.

To this point, it has struck me that road diet section of Fifth Street, which gets a good amount of bus and truck traffic throughout the day, still needs to be resurfaced. It has cracks and worn asphalt like all of our major streets in Davis.

If we are smart enough to pass a “pave-the-roads” tax pretty soon, and that means Fifth Street gets a new coat of asphalt, then all of the present stripes, including the snazzy (and to my mind helpful) green paint demarcating bike routes, will have to be repainted anew. That would be a waste of money, but hard to avoid without putting off the road diet indefinitely.

Where spending $800,000 of Davis money on a roadway improvement might seem excessive, it really is a small amount compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars our city needs to fix its crumbling infrastructure.

Moreover, there has for some time been a far more important reason to put Fifth Street on a road diet than just improving traffic flow. That 11-block section has been our least safe stretch of roadway for years. If the improved configuration reduces the accidents — and experience elsewhere suggests it will — then the dollar price is worth it.

From 2005 to 2008, there were 109 vehicle accidents on the road diet section of Fifth Street. Of those, 19 included pedestrians or bicyclists hit by cars or trucks, and 63 of the accidents involved injuries to people requiring medical treatment on scene.

The cost of those injury accidents is certainly far more than $800,000.

I never approached the road diet on an ideological basis, pro or con. When I first heard the idea floated back in 2006, I was skeptical on intuitive grounds. But I kept an open mind as advocates explained why it would work.

Some were drawn to the road diet because it provides new bike lanes in each direction. Others were repelled because they don’t like bicyclists. I ride my bike quite a bit — usually about 150 miles a week. But the added bike lanes on Fifth did not cause me to think the new configuration was good. I normally don’t ride that stretch.

Hopefully, if any kinks arise in the next year or so, they can be ironed out. And those who were against the road diet will come around and agree it was a good idea all the while.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]

Rich Rifkin

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