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Traffic woes with the road diet

For more than a year now, readers have been urging me to do a bit on the various efforts of "road diets" being implemented in this fine city. Since the initial stabs at changing four-lane thoroughfares into two-lane city streets, there have been plenty of howls of anguish from voices who have felt that the previous system was working, so why fix it?

On the other hand, the advocates of a diet of asphalt have had a certain amount of science to support their views. One, the moves are designed to reduce accidents on city streets, allow opportunities for better bicycle lanes and the experts have said, traffic will actually move more slowly.

So, I've taken a wait-and-see attitude on this road diet effort, and the early moves to eliminate thoroughfares have had, it seems, mixed results. Converting South McDowell to a two-lane street doesn't seem to have made much difference, simply because the street really wasn't a problem to begin with. It was change for change's sake. Bike lanes were added, but you will seldom see cyclists using them. So, South McDowell is different, but probably neither better nor worse.

I do think the slimming of Petaluma Boulevard downtown is another matter. In recent weeks, as this driver has tried to get into downtown, are escape from same, it seems that the city has indeed screwed up. If the function of a transportation network is to move traffic smoothly and quickly, the borderline gridlock that is becoming more and more frequent downtown shows that the system is not working.

And, perhaps, therein resides the problem. The primary goal of the advocates of the road diet program has been, it appears, not to move traffic smoothly and quickly, but to discourage it altogether. For a couple of decades now, there has been plenty of verbiage, spoken and written, about the glories of downtown as a pedestrian center, accessed by bicycles, and all that good stuff.

Which is fine, if that is what the public in general wants, but it appears not to be the case. People are still trying to get downtown in their vehicles, and this new system is obviously making it harder to do.

One argument advocates have used is that the diet will reduce accidents, and the record apparently shows that this is indeed the case downtown. The accident rate is definitely down. That should come as no surprise. If you implement moves to discourage the use of downtown streets that should reduce the volume of traffic, and fewer cars should mean fewer accidents.

But, focusing on just accidents ignores the bigger picture, and does not take into consideration what are essentially unintended consequences, which in this case is potential impact on the downtown business community. Could it just be true that reducing downtown car traffic could mean a reduction in downtown retail sales?

I do think that this is situation is a problem that is all too typical of government, or any decision making body that is not following strongly enunciated and broadly supported goals. In the case of the city, that would be the general plan.

It is human nature to use the reins of government to advocate personal agendas, and general plans are intended to be restraints on the unbridled enthusiasm of those agendas. Our current plan deals with the need to support the economic vitality of downtown to preserve and enhance this historic treasure, but I don't recall seeing it stated anywhere that one way to support downtown is to discourage automobile traffic.


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