The city is losing its lanes.

Across Akron for the past five years, public engineers have shrunk roads from four down to two or three lanes, trimming the number of lanes pedestrians must cross and carving out protected on-road paths for bicycles. Everywhere a sidewalk is being bumped out or parking replaces traffic in the street, there’s evidence of the city’s attempt to make the roads safer for all users.

Generally, fewer crashes follow what schooled engineers call “road diets.” But not always. On Copley Road by Buchtel High School, one of the city’s first road diets, fender benders are up after losing a lane. Elsewhere, accidents have fallen fast.

Safety isn’t the only factor driving the shrinkage. “Right-sizing” streets built 40 or 50 years ago for a busier city has an economic angle. Urban revivalists in philanthropic and government circles say slowing traffic and encouraging commerce could bring new and old customers back to once thriving neighborhood business sectors — and promote life in the city.

 

In 2015, regional transportation engineers then working for Akron's current city planner identified 38 road sections in Akron, most with four lanes and light traffic (less than 20,000 vehicles daily). All are now candidates for shrinkage, or road diets. Ten (in green) have already seen four or more lanes trimmed to two or three. Three (in red) are in the design stage or being bid for re-striping. The rest (in blue) remain candidates.

"I think we're seeing similar needs across the city," said Kyle Kutuchief, a program director for the Knight Foundation, which has funded the testing of various road diets in Middlebury, North Hill, Kenmore and East Exchange Street along the University of Akron. People want more vibrant "areas that are easier to navigate outside a car."

For head-scratching motorists with disrupted commutes, such long-term goals get lost in unintended traffic jams, delays and increasing encounters with bicycles, which by law adults must pedal in the street.

“I don’t understand why they made it a one-lane road,” Brian Capan, a baker who lives on 15th Street, said of the recently reconfigured Kenmore Boulevard. “It just seems goofy. They could have still had parking with two lanes. If they were worried about that, they could have taken out the median.”

There’s a general format to road diets; take a four-lane road or two thick lanes and make three: one in either direction with a center turning lane.

 

Back to school

This usually leaves room for bike lanes and, on wider streets, parking. Near schools or pedestrian-heavy intersections, diets offer two fewer lanes of moving vehicles to negotiate. And without a passing lane, there’s no jockeying between lanes to race past a motorist doing the speed limit.

The city has been using $400,000 annually from the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School Program to implement road diets: outside Helen Arnold on Vernon Odom Boulevard and Jennings Middle School on Tallmadge Avenue, which has produced the lion's share of students struck by vehicles while walking to school in a city with minimum busing for students. Bids went out this week for two more road diets on Wilbeth Road by Roswell Kent Middle School and Exchange Street from state Route 8 to Market Street across from Mason Elementary.

Then there are the road diets that attempt to predict future behavior, like one being planned on Hawkins Avenue. From the Swenson's Drive-In near Market Street in Wallhaven all the way south of Copley Road, this old street — even the section with only one thick lane in either direction — is a candidate for a road diet.

In 2015, Akron Metropolitan Transportation Study, which City Planner Jason Segedy used to lead, put Hawkins Avenue on a list of 24 Akron streets with average daily traffic of less than 20,000 vehicles. Any more traffic than that and national researchers suggest road diets, which slow traffic, actually cause delays, accidents and traffic jams.

The southern section of Hawkins carried fewer than 10,000 vehicles a day, making it a statistically better candidate than the short run from Swenson’s to Idlewood, which had 15,700 daily vehicles. But that’s the section Segedy has his team of civil engineers looking to reconfigure to offer safe passage to the future tenants of the luxury apartments developer Todd Tober plans to build in the spring.

“We are actively considering re-striping Hawkins from Idlewood to Westgate,” Segedy said, “due to the proposed 120-apartment complex, and the 250 estimated residents that will want to walk to Wallhaven.”

In all, the city has fully or partially reconfigured nine of the 24 roads identified in 2015 by AMATS. There are sidewalk bump-outs and upcoming two-way traffic on Cedar and Exchange streets downtown. Segedy has said two-way traffic is a consideration for the barreling traffic on Broadway, too. It’s also on the road diet list, with the state rolling new asphalt on its southern end as part of the Akron Interchange project.

“I would anticipate that as we look at candidates from that list, that our engineers will look at the latest available data and specific traffic and lane configuration characteristics to ultimately determine if a road diet will be done and what the specific street design should be,” he said. “It is possible that we would do future field-tests like we did on East Exchange [Street] to see what happens in real life.”

 

Lessons in dieting

Some real-life and local lessons on road diets already exist. And, in at least one case, the data buck the national trend of reducing crashes.

The success of a road diet can be measured in crashes and injuries that came before and after. On Copley Road, rear-end collisions, which tend to cause less severe injuries than head-on accidents or striking pedestrians at high speeds, jumped from 68 in the four-year period before the road diet to 134 in the past four years after. In the four years before and after Copley's road diet, there were two fatal crashes in 2009, one in 2010 and one on 2015.

There’s been an average of one more crash-related injury per year since 2013. That might be explained by a proportional 6 percent uptick in traffic as 790 more cars used the road by 2016. Still, Segedy said the more crash statistic merits further investigation.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, slowing traffic may be causing more crashes. But that's not necessarily bad news if the crashes are actually less often fatal.

“Because there are longer queues at the traffic signals, it is more likely that someone will end up rear-ending another stopped car, as rear-end crashes usually happen when one car is stopped, not when both cars are moving,” Segedy explained of anticipated traffic behavior. “The safety trade-off, though, is that the number of severe crashes should drop, because traffic is moving slower, and there are less opportunities for sideswipe and angled crashes, which tend to cause more severe injuries than rear-end crashes which strike the bumper. It's the same with roundabouts — more rear-end crashes, but far less severe injury crashes.”

On Tallmadge Avenue, where students and refugees without personal cars jaywalk or brave the street to get around snow-piled sidewalks, the two bicyclists or pedestrians hit by vehicles in 2016 and in 2017 has fallen to zero this year following a road diet. The figures compare the first eight months of each year and report a nearly 50 percent drop in crashes from 82 last year to 42 so far in 2018.

Another factor to consider is public education and engagement. The taming of Copley Road unfolded without consulting the community. Outreach through meetings and neighborhood groups has become standard before implementing new and disruptive traffic patterns. Chief of Staff James Hardy points to the community-based conversations before the re-striping of Kenmore Boulevard as a model for future engagement, especially in the 10 neighborhood business districts the city seeks to revitalize.

“We absolutely seek a collaborative model within the Great Streets program, and specifically in those neighborhoods where a Community Development Corporation [like the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance] has developed," Hardy said. Not every community has a CDC.

 

Tagline: Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.