Putting Main Street on a Road Diet

On March 14th I attended a workshop presented by the Carson City Public Works Department. The presentation outlined a proposal to create a pedestrian-friendly environment on Carson Street through the downtown area of Carson City between Fifth Street and Ann Street. This Road Diet, as they are commonly called, would include using striping to reduce travel lanes from four to two, and add on-street parallel parking. The protective metal fence would be removed along main street (with exception of the historic iron fence in front of the Capitol), but the sidewalks, median, and turn lanes would not be altered. The estimated cost of the project is $30,000.

Carson Street
Historic downtown Carson City

With good knowledge of the benefits of road diets, and having visited many successful and vibrant downtowns in other cities, I expected a positive meeting where the city, business owners, and citizens would come together to get this project done. Instead, the mood soured when questions and comments were opened to the public following the presentation. Many in the room became emotional and even angry, not because of the material presented, but because they had already made up their minds ahead of time. Some people had prepared statements and petitions. One gas station owner, whose business is north of the area of proposed changes, feared that decreased traffic on Carson Street would negatively impact his businesses. Thankfully Doreen Mack, a strong proponent of the project, was on hand to counter some of the arguments.  Unfortunately, though, the damage was done, and the project was presented rather negatively in the newspaper.

Carson Street Workshop by Carson City Public Works
Doreen Mack explaining the Carson Street vision to a room of unconvinced citizens

Here’s a list of some of the major complaints from the meeting:

  • Decreased traffic will kill business.
  • You won’t be able to see into the businesses with cars parked along the side.
  • How come the downtown business aren’t paying for this?
  • I can’t parallel park.
  • The fences prevent jay walkers.
  • This is an expensive “experiment”.
  • Downtown is dead and nothing happens there.
  • Carson City is not a destination.

Carson Street Plan
Conceptual Parking Plan Example

What is a Road Diet?

While Public Works did a great job with the technical specifications of the project, I don’t think it was made clear the benefits of a road diet. While the presenters did refer to successful case studies, most of the audience could only hear the words “Road Block“. But what is a road diet really?

Here’s a great explanation of a road diet from StreetFilms.org:

What’s a road diet? Quite simply, traffic-calming expert Dan Burden told Streetfilms, “A road diet is anytime you take any lane out of a road.”

The first time people hear about a road diet, their initial reaction likely goes something like this: “How can removing lanes improve my neighborhood and not cause traffic backups?” It seems counterintuitive, but taking away lanes can actually help traffic flow smoother while improving safety for everyone.

Road diets are good for pedestrians: They reduce speeding and make vehicle movements more predictable while shortening crossing distances, usually through curb extensions or center median islands. They’re good for cyclists: Many road diets shift space from car lanes to create bike lanes. They’re good for drivers: Less speeding improves safety for motorists and passengers, and providing left-turn pockets allows through traffic to proceed without shifting lanes or waiting behind turning vehicles.

And here’s something to keep in mind during this era of lean budgets: Road diets are a highly-effective infrastructure improvement that can be implemented quickly and at low cost.

Here’s a fantastic video that explains the road diet, and shows the converted streets in action:

Moving Beyond the Automobile: Road Diets

So as you can see, a Road Diet is hardly a Road Block. It doesn’t even necessarily mean we’ll see a large decrease in overall traffic flow. While Main Street and nearby streets do see some congestion at times throughout the day, it is generally short lived; for example, traffic can pick up at 5:00 PM when people get off work, but it generally calms down again in 10 – 15 minutes. Drivers may look for other routes during these peak times if Carson Street were to be narrowed, but for most of the day, a lane in each direction should be fine.  Nearby Stewart Street is currently under capacity, and would make a good alternative should anyone want to take an alternate route through downtown.

Carson Street
The project would remove these fences and add curbside parking.

What is there to do Downtown?

A common theme from the opposition at the meeting was that there simply isn’t anything downtown that is worth promoting. One person even took to the microphone to say there weren’t even any businesses on the east side of the street! It was pretty obvious that these people weren’t in the least bit familiar with downtown.  They should take the time to walk the downtown corridor to see just what is available, not only for tourists, but for the people living in Carson City as well.

Carson Street
Great places to go for food, drinks, live music, and more!

In the corridor of this project, on both sides of the street, there is an abundance of things to do. There are the Capitol Grounds, coffee houses, restaurants, a brewery, music venues, art galleries, museums, offices, bars, hair salons, a yoga studio, a gym, an antique shop, casinos, gift shops, motels and more. In the warmer months, there are farmers markets, outdoor concerts, bike rides, car shows, and other special events that draw hundreds of people. In the winter there is a skating rink that is enjoyed by many. Just off Main Street are many other shops, used book stores, a florist, restaurants, the Brewery Arts Center, and our public library. Clearly, there is plenty to do and see. Not only are these places visited by tourists, but they have become invaluable to Carson City residents as well. You can’t discount the tremendous social and cultural value of our city center.  And thanks to our growing list of outdoor activities, people from out of town are making the drive to enjoy our trails, paths, and aquatic trail. Carson City is a destination.

Carson Street
Most of the time there is excess capacity on Carson Street

Benefits of a Road Diet in Carson City

  • Slower traffic adds to pedestrian and bicycle safety, and gives businesses better visibility.  Prudent drivers set the traffic pace, not the speeders.
  • Pedestrians have to cross fewer lanes of traffic, and are more visible with the other two lanes removed.
  • Easier for cyclists to navigate and make left turns, since they don’t have to cross two lanes of traffic to get into the turn lane.
  • Customers can park in front of businesses, and are not blocked by a metal fence. Plan adds 85 new parking spaces.  Parking spaces will be 27-feet long each, a length longer than some RVs.  Parking a passenger car should be a breeze.
  • Streetside parking creates a buffer zone for pedestrians on the sidewalk, eliminating the need for safety fences.
  • Eliminating one through-lane in each direction will not result in a proportional loss of car-carrying capacity.  Traffic should flow as normal during most times of the day.  Thanks to the freeway, traffic in downtown is now at early 1970s levels.
  • Create authentic ambiance. A Walkable and bikeable downtown will reflect a sense of place and capture the community’s historic character.
  • Livable downtowns attract people and businesses looking to relocate.
  • The estimated cost of the project is only $30,000.

A road diet is not “an experiment”.  Cities all over the country have implemented them with great success. Big cities like San Francisco have put several of their busy streets on road diets, and have seen an increase in foot and bicycle traffic. In many cases, property values go up, and business increases where the streets have been converted to be more livable. By reallocating the space on our main street to accommodate those who live here, work here, and visit our businesses, versus privileging those who would simply drive on through, we will enjoy the benefits that these other cities have seen. It also makes sense that businesses that are located outside the area of this plan would benefit as well. An increased visitation downtown would lead to more demand for business north and south of downtown like service stations, grocery stores, movie theaters, and hotels.

Carson Street
Current Pedestrian crossing near The Nugget – We can do better

Luckily the Carson City Public Works presentation was informational only.  City Supervisors were in attendance to listen to the meeting, but nothing was voted on.  The vote to approve this project will take place at a Board of Supervisors meeting in the near future. For those of you who would like to see a better bicycle and pedestrian friendly Carson City, and a more livable downtown,  I’ll be putting together some information to help you get involved and get your voice heard. If we do nothing, we will most certainly find out that someone else has decided for us.

More information on this project:  Conceptual Downtown Parking Plan

For a good look at the history of Carson Street, check out AroundCarson.com.

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13 thoughts on “Putting Main Street on a Road Diet

  1. Nicely done, Jeff! Lots of solid information, too.

    There was a road diet done here in Louisville KY last year, and there were many similar fears expressed by many who, basically, were VERY resistant when they heard that a travel lane in each direction would be taken away.

    People hate to “lose” stuff. We hate to have stuff taken away from us, no matter the public good.

    One point made by the naysayers was that transit time from end to end of the project would be affected terribly. They were talking ten plus minutes over a mile or so of road.

    The result (and, yes, transit times were checked before and after)? Ten seconds slower on average. Vehicle counts are the same. Crash frequency has dropped a bit, but it’s too early to tell whether that was within annual fluctuations. I haven’t seen a survey of businesses along that stretch that compared door traffic before and after, so cannot speak to that. However, in other cases where such data collecting has been done, it’s been an improvement for local businesses.

  2. Parallel parking is a bad idea, everything else is great! Traffic will build up behind those who are struggling to parallel park. Can we have “pull in” parking spots instead?

    1. Without altering the median and sidewalks there isn’t enough room for pull-in diagonal parking; however, with parking spaces 27 feet long, you should be able to pull in forward, then back up to center yourself. The engineer from public works said they arrived at the 27 foot length after testing it out with their vehicles. He said it works pretty good. The ‘dream’ plan is to eventually widen the sidewalks and remove the median. At this point I believe they’d put in diagonal parking.

  3. Downtown Reno did the road diet a few years ago and it seems to have gone well. Though they don’t have much more than casinos, closed casinos, and pawn shops that used to be closed casinos. So there’s not a lot of variety in their downtown.

    For pull-in parking they’d have to rip out the median, and that adds a bit to the overall cost. I keep going back and forth about whether the median is a good thing, and I think Carson Street is just too narrow for one. Taking it out and putting planters on the sidewalks would be better. Imagine every corner downtown looking like Telegraph Square!

  4. This proposed project is the best thing that can happen to Downtown Carson City. The Street Diet has proven it works in similar downtown areas across the country. There is NO downside to this project. This is a triple win for everyone; driv…ers, pedestrians and local businesses all win with this project. A lot of credit goes to the staff of the Carson City Public Works Department to make Carson City a better place to live, work, play and shop.

  5. Mark and I have recently been in Placerville and Truckee…both have awesome walking areas downtown. It is easy to pull in, park and hit local businesses and venues. We have got to make our downtown more accessible. Thank you for a well spoken and informative article, Jeff!

  6. I don’t like the ugly railings along main street and the speeding drivers, but I don’t know if I would like the possible increased traffic time to get through that area either. It seems to me the street lights would have to be well timed to keep the flow going which is rare around here. And maybe the speed limit reduced for people pulling in and out of parking spots.

  7. I love the idea and have wanted to see that shit black fence removed for along time. Its hazardous and cramped! After seeing that strong video I realized I have enjoyed the ‘Road Diet’ in Seattle and other cities without even knowing it. Lets do it and I think that like other places we could even enjoy an umbrella and chairs in front of a few diners too;)

  8. The project would alter the road from 5th Street to Ann Street, a distance of 0.5 miles. Here’s how long it would take you to get through the area at different speeds (not including stop light time)

    3mph (walking): 10 mins
    10mph: 3 mins
    15mph: 2 mins
    20mph: 1 min, 30 seconds
    25mph: 1 min, 12 seconds
    30mph: 1 min

    People may be looking at delays of a minute or less when it gets busy. In other words…not significant for such a short distance.

  9. This is a great idea for the city and something that has been missing for some time now. I think what we are finding here with the negative responses is a similar “group” of people that are opposed to building a second high school for one that is truly overflowing with students. We have a much older “demographic” of people that still live and frequent the “main drag” of Carson basically because that is all they know.

    However, I do think that the main problem here is that people are “afraid” of change and to feel like they are losing something. What they don’t realize is that this will bring more business to the downtown area and will help with some of the other issues that they believe it will cause more issues than it will solve.

    Unfortunately, only time will tell. We will definitely need to have more “proponents” for these types of changes at the meetings.

  10. I was born here in Carson City 54 years ago. My main concern is that I live on Division Street and many people already use it to avoid Carson Street and the speed limit. We have no enforcement on Division even after going in front of the Board of Supervisors with a petition signed by over 150 people. I only see the back streets picking up more traffic and speeding to avoid the down town single lanes. Our speed table does nothing to slow these people down. We have people who ride bikes, walk, and live on these back roads. I can’t even back out of my drive way without someone going around me into the other side of the street or worse yet into my driveway to pass me while I am in the road. We have deer, racoons, cats, dogs, and children back here that only will be put in more danger than they already are. So, for me and many others, this doesn’t sound like anything we want. I think I will keep helping with CASI to get a new animal shelter for our city. I see that doing more good for more than for the few that think we are still living in the 50’s and 60’s with less people.

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