‘Road diets’ can improve our streets


In the final scene of the popular 1985 film Back to the Future, the mad scientist “Doc” Brown is about to transport Marty McFly three decades into the year 2015 to fix the future, but tells him that they need more road to gain enough speed to reach the 88 miles per hour needed for time travel. The Doc then famously tells McFly that, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” before jetting off in a flying DeLorean.

Three decades ago, Robert Zemeckis, director and writer of Back to the Future, envisioned 2015 as a year where flying cars were a reality and roads dedicated to cars would be a vestige of the past. In 2015, vehicular streets are still very much part of Miami's urban fabric and will continue to be for a long time. But there is a future where these roads dedicated to traffic are being put to other uses.

In a previous article, I discussed how building more roads is not improving our unending traffic woes. Prioritizing vehicular streets in urban areas has reduced quality of life by making this city more reliant on cars, reducing the city's green space and making the city less pedestrian-friendly.

Rather than build more roads, there are a sizable number of efforts in communities throughout the area to reduce the number of roads dedicated to vehicles. Perhaps most notably are proposed lane reductions to various sections of Biscayne Boulevard, Miami’s most prominent corridor, and also likely the most reviled. But there are also efforts in Little Havana, South Beach and other areas to convert lanes for other uses.

On paper, the idea of reducing the amount of vehicular lanes sounds preposterous. Traffic congestion is a major issue that affects almost every commuter in the city and most anyone who has sat during rush-hour traffic would say that reducing capacity is an insane proposal. But surprisingly, it’s not.

While the idea of reducing the amount of vehicular lanes, which is often referred to as “road diets,” is a fairly new phenomenon, it’s so far proven itself to be quite popular and has myriad benefits. According to Citylab, statistics have shown that decreasing the amount of vehicular lanes can reduce speeding, traffic crashes and pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

A road diet isn’t feasible everywhere, but it could improve traffic in many places with minimal impact on congestion.

Moreover, closing lanes of traffic opens the opportunity to replace them with things that many residents want: broader sidewalks, bike lanes and green areas (or street parking in areas where parking is scarce).

While it may seem impossible to reduce vehicular lanes without significantly increasing traffic jams, it is in fact quite realistic to do so. While a road diet isn’t feasible for the most congested streets, many others are able to reduce lanes with minimal impact on traffic. As reducing lanes slows down traffic, it reduces the number of traffic incidents that cause delays.

In addition, bike lanes and broader sidewalks (which can be added after vehicular lanes are removed) increase pedestrian safety and encourage walking and biking, thus keeping potential drivers off the roads.

For those who have doubts that these road diets could potentially work on Miami’s busiest streets, Miami Today recently reported that a city of Miami study showed that reducing lanes on Biscayne Boulevard would have minimal impact on traffic congestion on the street. If it could work on a stretch of U.S. 1, a street that many refer to as “Useless 1,” there’s little doubt in my mind that it could work elsewhere in Miami.

While the prediction in Back to the Future of a world where roads are no longer necessary has proven to be wildly inaccurate, a future where roads take up less of our urban environment is just around the corner — no time-traveling DeLorean needed.