As desire for walkable streets grows across Cincinnati, is 'road dieting' the answer? It depends

CINCINNATI -- The city's most recent road enhancement at the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive/Interstate 71 interchange resulted in a massive, nine-lane thoroughfare cutting through Avondale.

But not all Queen City road projects have widening in mind. Some roads are trimming the fat.

It's part of a growing trend in the country's urban centers as more city-dwellers are choosing to ditch their keys and look for alternatives to auto commuting. 

Often referred to as a "road diet," the New York-based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces uses the more inclusive term, "rightsizing," and the idea is pretty straightforward: Design a street for those who are using it.

That seems to be the logic behind the MLK interchange project -- a busy exchange between two highways, one an interstate and the other a U.S. route, that sees a lot of auto traffic, including frequent use by emergency vehicles.

"It was problematic getting in and out of the area," said Brian Cunningham, with the Ohio Department of Transportation, referring specifically to ambulances and access to the multiple hospitals located in the vicinity. ODOT maintains Martin Luther King Drive, which conveys U.S. 127.

There was some debate, though, over the MLK interchange, especially among pedestrian and public transit advocates as well as neighborhood leaders.

"People are definitely not going to want to walk on the sidewalk with nine lanes running through there," said Cameron Hardy, president of local transit advocacy group, the Better Bus Coalition. "That seems extremely busy; that seems loud."

As more Cincinnati neighborhoods are looking to become more walkable and bike-friendly, that means road projects are bringing with them narrower -- and fewer -- lanes. This is where the idea of the "diet" comes in.

In practice, a road diet might reduce travel lanes, but it can often mean adding other things like wider sidewalks, bike lanes and additional street parking. All have proven to calm traffic and increase safety for all types of road users, according to the Federal Highway Association.

The city recently reduced the number of auto travel lanes on Riverside Drive to accommodate bike lanes in both directions and on street parking. (Google Maps)

Other examples: Riverside Drive connecting Downtown to East End along the riverfront received designated bike lanes in 2012 and 2013. Delta Avenue in Mount Lookout was reduced from two lanes in each direction to one lane both ways plus a shared center turn lane and bike lanes. Spring Grove Avenue in Camp Washington just got new bike lanes, as well.

It's the concept driving a still-in-planning reboot of Liberty Street in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, a corridor currently seven lanes wide -- two travel lanes in both directions, a center turn lane and a part-time parking lane. Staff with the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering held four listening sessions throughout 2016 to gather public feedback on potential redesigns.

As it's configured now, Liberty Street serves as a stark, gaping contrast to the otherwise walkable neighborhood's smaller streets that connect to it. Its crosswalks take twice as long for people to cross as other neighborhood streets, and residents often complain about excessive speeding.

Some say the street's width is also preventing the northern half of OTR from developing as its southern half has over the last several years, and there is evidence linking highways and wide roads like Liberty Street to poverty.

City engineers jokingly refer to it as "the canyon."

But planning is in the works for a redesign engineers hope will help. Here is one redesign option the DOTE is considering, a five-lane configuration:

In this five-lane configuration, the outside parking lanes would convert to traffic lanes during rush hour. (City of Cincinnati)

While it is smaller, it doesn't include the other complete street elements some other road diets do, such as bike lanes, more crosswalks and intersection curb bump outs.

Bike lanes were an initial consideration, but project leader Matthew Andrews determined last fall that the traffic volume -- an estimated 16,000 to 18,000 vehicles per day -- is too heavy during rush hour to allow for anything less than five traffic lanes.

Road diets aren't immune to complications. 

Montana Avenue on Cincinnati's West Side, after a lane reduction from four lanes to three. (Google Maps)

Take Montana Avenue on the border between East Westwood, Westwood and Mount Airy. The DOTE implemented a road diet program in August 2012 on a short stretch just south of Interstate 74, taking the original four-lane configuration down to three lanes.

The results were mixed, according to a Cincinnati Police Department study of traffic crash data from 2014-16. According to a June 28 memo, a study along this stretch indicated the traffic volume -- combined with the frequency of public transportation and school buses along the route -- led to "numerous delays caused by school and Metro buses making frequent stops, thus effectively turning Montana Avenue into a one-lane roadway during evening rush hour."

This led to more crashes, the study found: 157 total in the two-year stretch.

Meanwhile, planning for the Liberty Street road diet project is still under administrative review.

Previous reporting by WCPO's Joe Rosemeyer contributed to this story.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

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