Sugar House is going on a road diet

My colleague Christopher Smart wrote earlier this week about a coming road diet in Sugar House. Huzzah!

Basically, the idea is to create a more complete street on a densifying area of the city:

What it includes is a road diet for Highland Drive south of 2100 South to Interstate 80. It would reduce auto traffic to one lane in each direction with a center left-turn lane. Bicycle lanes also would travel in each direction.

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This is a good thing for Sugar House, though the comments section of the article shows that many people don’t quite grasp the idea of road diets and complete streets. That’s a serious problem and city planners need to fix it; if people who study ways to build better cities don’t help others understand change then change will be very slow.

In any case, many people complain in the comments section of the article that Sugar House is already congested and reducing the number of car lanes will increase that “problem.” That may be true to a certain extent, though “congestion” tends to function like vapor; it fills whatever space it has, large or small. When we widen roads and build new ones, traffic tends to increase as a result of induced demand.

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On the other hand, narrowing a road can mean that it will stay congested, but soon drivers will be dispersed to other routes. Moreover, if the goal is to produce vibrancy and economic stability, it’s vital to have at least a mix of cars and non-cars (e.g. pedestrians and bikes).  This fantastic article by Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities explores road diets and their plethora of benefits.

People also complain that making driving and parking difficult will deter people and reduce economic vitality, apparently forgetting that the most visited places on earth are some of the least car-friendly. Indeed, city after city shows that walkable infrastructure is attractive to visitors — though those visitors may be different people who happen not to be drivers completely set in their ways.

Ultimately, some people seem to erroneously believe that the goal of city planning is to get them from one place to another as quickly as possible. Or, more generally, that it’s supposed to make it easier for them to do whatever they want.

But that isn’t the goal at all. Instead, the goal is to create successful spaces. Sometimes that means one group (drivers) experiences a bit more annoyance because other, traditionally under-served groups (cyclists and pedestrians) need to experience less annoyance. It’s a cost-benefit game that planners are playing here and in general the benefits of adding cyclists and pedestrians outweigh the costs of losing some drivers.

In other words, if you’re the kind of person who is dead set on driving anywhere and is angry about the Sugar House road diet, the planners are aware of you and decided the neighborhood can get by without you. That sounds harsh, but the reality is that a place cannot reach its full potential if it’s designed primarily for cars. That idea is increasingly becoming the accepted wisdom and for better or for worse options for people who only drive are going to continue diminishing.

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