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Posted by on Jan 28, 2010 in General, Safety, Transit | 12 comments

The Case for a Six Lane Moratorium

Semoran Blvd & University in Orange County

Semoran Blvd & University in Orange County

The last two years have brought unprecedented change to the nation and to Central Florida. The financial crisis virtually dried up credit. This caused the housing bubble to burst putting Florida’s housing industry sales into free fall. Unemployment, foreclosures and out-migration rippled through the economy. And for the first time since the end of World War II, Florida’s population declined. Oil and gasoline prices fluctuated wildly causing drivers to cut back driving, stop buying gas guzzling trucks and SUVs, and created long waiting lists for fuel sipping hybrids.

Traffic on our roads, interstates and toll roads declined. Money available for transportation improvements became scarcer as revenue from gas taxes declined. The federal government pumped massive amounts of money into the system to keep the economy from collapsing, with only a small portion making it to local transportation infrastructure improvements. Global climate change caused by man’s activity, primarily the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels, became a reality for the majority of citizens who in turn looked to their political leaders for solutions. And the Greater Orlando area was cited in a national report as being the most pedestrian unfriendly metro area in the country. All these events and their repercussions created new and difficult issues for Central Florida transportation planners.

But these events have also fostered unique opportunities to improve transportation in Central Florida. Consider the positive aspects:

  • Declines in road usage and miles traveled have altered the need for additional road capacity. Projected traffic increases are not being realized causing at the least, postponement of capacity needs, and, depending on future events, perhaps elimination of some.
  • The long and much anticipated Metro Orlando transit system with north-south commuter rail as its backbone is approved and construction will start soon. This new system will create opportunities to offer commuters viable alternatives to single passenger vehicle use previously unavailable.
  • Increased awareness of Greater Orlando’s position as the most pedestrian unfriendly metro area has created demands for changes to the system to increase pedestrian convenience and safety.

With less travel on our roads, more viable transportation alternatives, and public pressure to give the pedestrian a better break, transportation planners have the ability and franchise to devote more resources to more walkable streets and pedestrian safety.

Transportation planners and researchers have found out much about the relationship between the type of roads we build and pedestrian safety.

  • Most of the urban/suburban pedestrian crashes occur on multi-lane, high speed roads that are difficult and dangerous for pedestrians to use and cross. These roads were built to move vehicles quickly and making them safe for pedestrians was not a priority.
  • Studies have also shown that increasing a road from four to six lanes doubles the pedestrian crash rate on the road, and there are indications widening increases the vehicle crash rate as well.
  • The process of making existing urban roads safer will be expensive, time consuming and will involve making choices among tradeoffs between pedestrian safety and vehicular convenience and travel speed.

And the need to resort to widening roads as a routine response to congestion is being increasingly scrutinized as planners have found that:

  • There are proven ways to increase traffic flow without resorting to widening roads, including better signalization to achieve maximum throughput, eliminating bottlenecks, improving intersection turning movements, and improving intersection stacking and throughput capacity.
  • Many transportation planners have come to believe that increasing road capacity does little to change peak time congestion on any given road. Once the road is widened, traffic increases to fill the additional road capacity and congestion reaches equilibrium at the old level.

The Metroplan Orlando 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan has as a desired outcome less growth in vehicle miles traveled by cars and trucks on our road system, and more use of transit and other alternative means of transportation. To accomplish this some of each of the following is required:

  • Smart Growth planning and growth management to create more walkable, transit-friendly communities.
  • Providing viable alternatives to vehicle/road use.
  • Making vehicle/road use relatively more expensive than alternatives in terms of cost, time and convenience.
  • Providing education to change motorist’s expectations through use of media and public relations.

In response to these challenges and opportunities a moratorium should be placed on construction of six lane roads. Such a moratorium would stop the construction of, or widening to, all roads of six lanes or more. Limited access interstates and toll roads would be excluded.

The immediate benefits of a moratorium would:

  • Allow the reallocation of funds committed to such six-lane construction and widening to alternative forms of transportation such as transit – bus, rail, car pooling, and paratransit – bicycles, and walking.
  • Promote the evaluation and use of alternatives to six lane roads such as increased connectivity, use of grid road systems, increased efficiency of existing roads through better traffic management, and use of incentives for drivers to use alternative transportation.
  • Provide an opportunity to increase pedestrian safety on the existing road system without the addition of more six lane roads that increase the pedestrian crash rate, negating any safety improvements on existing roads.
  • A moratorium will provide base data points from which the pedestrian danger index can go down rather than stay the same or go up.

Turning challenges into opportunities frequently involves changing the paradigm or shifting emphasis to cause people to consider things in a new way. If the desired change features a common goal or focal point that the public can identify with and rally around, then change becomes easier to communicate and put into effect.

A moratorium on six lane roads in the Metro Orlando area would provide such a rallying point. The word moratorium itself communicates urgency and action. In this context it means to stop doing something in order to halt its deleterious effects, and to examine closely the tradeoffs between the benefits and harmful effects of the activity in order to determine whether to continue it in the future.

By declaring a moratorium on six lane roads, Metroplan will focus a spotlight on issues that heretofore have not had much public exposure and debate:

  • Issues of excessive single occupant vehicle use
  • Never ending spending on roads that are always full
  • Lack of alternative travel modes
  • Wasteful and emissions-producing combustion of hydrocarbon fuels
  • The effects of urban sprawl on lifestyles, productivity and energy use
  • The danger to pedestrians caused by multi-lane, high speed roads in urban and suburban areas

As with any rule there will be exceptions. Projects already underway that cannot be reasonably stopped would be allowed to continue. Projects in the pipeline that are deemed to be absolutely critical would be allowed to go forward. But the very act of examining and approving these exceptional projects will give greater insight into alternatives and to the criteria that should be used to evaluate future projects. The previous concept of build and ask questions later will be replaced with careful evaluation of need and alternatives before building.

The current environment of economic hardship, shortage of infrastructure funds, unconscionable pedestrian accident rate, global climate change, and the dawn of a new era for transit in Central Florida calls for bold and imaginative leadership. Imposing a six-lane moratorium is one way to show such leadership, and will demonstrate that the leaders in Metro Orlando are serious about achieving Metroplan Orlando’s transportation goals.

12 Comments

  1. I don’t want to spend tax dollars to expand the street up to 6 lanes. No offense but not even for motorists out there in the road.

    I know what I said is typical of pro-cyclist but I do stand up for myself and I stand united.

    It’s high time that motorists should stop thinking they own the road, because motorists don’t own the road. It’s there for motorists to use it and respect the laws and regulations governed in this country, state, and within the city.

  2. Great case, Bill! In the interest of moving cars (single-occupant cars), we’ve created hundreds of miles of hellscapes, rife with frustration and incivility, generally hostile to human life and deadly to pedestrians.

    Great photo! There are 2 peds trying to run across midblock. The perspective illustrates the problem. There’s no incentive for them to try and cross at the intersections. At the intersection, they have to dodge traffic from multiple directions and cross ten lanes. Midblock, they only have to dodge traffic from one direction at a time… and cross three lanes at a time. The choice makes sense on a gut level. Unfortunately, that traffic is accelerating and they can’t judge the speed.

    • If you’ve ever crossed the major intersection in W. Tennessee Street and/or N. Monroe Street, then you would not believe how dangerous the intersections are. This is in Tallahassee before I moved to Orlando during August 8th of 2009.

      Phew… I don’t have to worry about those big intersections since I can’t walk up to E. Colonial Drive from N. Chickasaw Trail. There’s construction going on but nothing has been worked in. Because of that, pedestrians are out of luck.

  3. Sounds to me like we ought to just let the market take it’s course and stop spending to subsidize motorists!

    Personally, I like six lane roads. They’re mostly pretty easy to ride, and the occasional honk is undoubtedly from a disaffected Democrat that hasn’t gotten the word. In other words, “Let’s roll!”

    • Yes, they are easy to drive a bike on. In some ways easier than a 4 lane road. But the high concentration of pedestrian fatalities and patterns of blight that follow the lifecycle of road expansion really show them to be unacceptable for the community.

      If we stopped subsidizing motorists, this type of road design would go away.

  4. Fantastic article Bill. Great case.

    I do think we’re experiencing a paradigm shift in FL with respect to transit. With the approval of the High Speed Rail Corridor along with SunRail – FDOT will likely also become a mass transit provider. Their tone has changed drastically. But I’m still seeing roadway plans that leave a bit to be desired in terms of pedestrian safety and convenience.

    Let’s claim this excess right of way for people, not just cars. That photo provides a perfect perspective as to why these 6 lane (10 at intersections) roadways are just awful in so many ways.

  5. Ever the optimist, I was sure that “Flex-time” would reduce traffic jams. Then I thought that more people would work from home using the ‘net.

    For more years than I can remember, I heard (in tones tinged with horror) that the demi-gods in charge of roadwork had decided that widening roads and new roads were a waste of money and that “other things” would be used. The line was drawn in the sand. “Can’t build your way out of traffic” was what was said by the pols.

    Just like I heard as a child that “automatic cars” would be common by this time. Using buried sensors, cars would just drive themselves to the destination, eliminating traffic jams and crashes. This was brought up whenever someone expressed outrage at the highway carnage rates. “Someday, you won’t have to worry about that . . .”

    These all sound like bad jokes now. I have seen no evidence of anything stopping the juggernaut of road building.

  6. The problem of commercial viability on six lane roads is an important one I didn’t touch on. However, it is a real problem as Keri points out. At some point increasing traffic has a negative effect on businesses as drivers don’t notice the business and/or can’t access it easily. If they do manage to drive in, then they face a daunting task exiting and think twice about coming back. Overall, a change from 4 lane to 6 lane is frequently a negative one for businesses and leads to closings and a less inviting environment for all.

  7. One BAD thing about getting rid of six lane roads – if you just make that RH lane into a shoulder, most motorists are sure you need to ride ON that shoulder. I’d rather not have that shoulder, given a choice. Without that shoulder, it’s less stressful and there’s a LOT less motorist honking. Just my PO without a lot of solid data -yet.

    My FAVE: a four lane with no hint of any shoulder, and traffic levels that don’t create the feeling that it’s “either you or me.”

    • Drivers don’t like to change lanes.
      They are afraid that there will be a car in their blind spot. And in an SUV, the blind spots can be very large.

  8. A preferred alternative to wide, multilane roads is to reconstruct those roads and design new ones using design criteria that embrace Complete Streets principles. These include sidewalks, bike lanes, wide shoulders, plenty of crossing opportunities, refuge medians, bus shelters and crossings, special bus lanes, raised crosswalks, pedestrian alert signals, and sidewalk bulb-outs. A Complete Street would change the traffic dynamic significantly. Not all these features can or should be applied to all roads all at once. Each community will design and build to suit their requirements, incorporating the Complete Street principles that meet their particular needs. For example an alternative to a six-lane road might use the extra width for Bus Rapid Transit lanes.

    • Bike lanes and wide shoulders create much higher risk for cyclists in high-conflict commercial areas. This is where the belief that cyclists are better off out of the way becomes deadly. Where there are lots of turning and crossing movements, the safest place for a cyclist is in a lane-control position — left of center. I’m all for using the extra space to create pedestrian infrastructure, but I’d never advocate for bike lanes on commercial arterials.