Sep 9, 2009

A Road Diet

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Does Orlando need to go on a 'road diet'?

Reduce lanes and slow down, engineer says

Orlando Sentinel 9-8-09

This article is largely about central Florida where we live but I am certain would translate to any of the 50 largest cities in the USA. I believe Times Square in NYC has now severely cut back traffic and London I believe charges to enter the city.

Bicycles are a great way to get around in a downtown if the weather is good and perhaps bicycling to work is not favored by tax codes as much as it could be.

To force people out of their cars and onto their bikes or on to public transport could really in effect up the miles per gallon of any vehicle since it's use would be more sporadic and of course the gross demand for oil and gas would drop as a result.

Billy Hattaway once was a true believer in roads — the bigger, the wider, the better.

He was, after all, a top road designer and engineer for 23 years at the Florida Department of Transportation.

Now a consultant, he has become a proponent of what he calls "road diets," or reducing the amount of pavement in an effort to make communities a better place for walkers, bicyclists and businesses.

If that means roads with pretty much nonstop bumper-to-bumper traffic, the 57-year-old Hattaway has a simple answer: "That's OK."

The idea that motorists should always be able to drive at medium to high speeds on wide-open roads, he said, "is just not a rational approach."

With the price of gasoline expected to rise and fuel consumption predicted to fall — resulting in less tax money for roads — the time is right for people to rethink transportation, he says.

Hattaway, now Florida managing director of transportation for the consulting firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. in downtown Orlando, concedes his philosophy is not widely held in the industry. But he maintains it is growing.

He used to work for the downtown Orlando firm of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Inc., which also employs proponents of the less-is-more theory. His old FDOT cohorts are becoming more sympathetic, too.

"The tides are turning," said Noreanne Downs, who runs the state road agency in Central Florida and used to work with Hattaway. "We are looking at the most cost-effective way."

On Wednesday, the FDOT revealed that its five-year work plan had fallen more than $7 billion in just two years, from $43.5 billion to $36.2 billion. That means pursuing options other than just building new roads or widening old ones.

SunRail, for instance, is a planned commuter train that would run from DeLand in Volusia County, through downtown Orlando, to Poinciana in Osceola County. It would cost $1.2 billion.

Adding just one lane to Interstate 4 for the entire length of the 61.5-mile train route would cost an estimated $7 billion.

Hattaway's conversion on roads began during the late 1990s, when he was still with the state. A trip to the West Coast opened him to the possibilities of mass transit and smaller, narrower streets.

"Billy was very open-minded," Downs said.

Hattaway, who left FDOT in 2002, now is a big backer of buses and trains because they get people out of their cars, which can lessen congestion and reduce pollution.

Some day, he would like to see major, jammed roads such as U.S. Highway 17-92 and State Road 50 with light-rail trains that could ferry people to various strip centers, malls and workplaces.

Lots of fast-moving cars, he said, are bad for business because motorists are unlikely to stop, much less slow to see what's on either side of the road. He made that pitch to the city of Eustis in Lake County, which is trying to redevelop its small downtown.

The problem for Eustis is State Road 19, which was turned into a one-way street through the business district.

Nearly 15,000 vehicles a day zoom through the city. That discourages shoppers, diners and pedestrians, said Diane Kramer, director of development services in Eustis.

Eustis officials hope to persuade the state to return the roads to two-way traffic and allow the city to narrow the streets and landscape them. That should slow the cars and trucks.

"We're very seriously trying to do it," Kramer said.

Hattaway argues that Orlando, which he considers to be progressive when it comes to transportation, could benefit from a road diet as well.

He points to Orange Avenue in downtown as a prime example, a road that has been one way south for decades.

Turning it into a two-way street with parking spots on both sides undoubtedly would slow traffic. But even if the flow turned into a morass, it would be a boon for stores and restaurants, he said.

Orlando's transportation director, Roger Neiswender, understands Hattaway's argument, but does not support the notion of congealing traffic downtown.

He fears motorists would bleed off onto side streets and inundate them.

"We've got to have a solution at this point. We haven't been able to get it to the next level," Neiswender said.

Hattaway, who eschews his car and rides his bike to work every day, is unfazed by such arguments.

"Our system is so out of whack, it will take time [to change attitudes]," he said. "People will modify their behavior."

Dan Tracy can be reached at dtracy@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5444.

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