By David Preston
Although the term “road diet” is a misnomer—it’s actually the cars that are on a diet, and not the road—it refers to the process of channeling and/or slowing traffic on multi-lane roads by reassigning one or more car lanes to other purposes. These other purposes can include new or expanded left-turn lanes, parking lanes, bicycle lanes, or more pedestrian-friendly intersections.
During a discussion (on another thread) of the recently completed Fauntleroy Way SW diet, someone living in the area said that Fauntleroy has a “whole new vibe” as a result of the changes. Prompted by that comment, I decided to hop on my bike and go check out the new vibe from a bicyclist’s point of view. Starting at 3:45 PM on Monday, August 30, I pedaled my way slowly north on Fauntleroy from the south end of Lincoln Park to SW Alaska street. Here’s what I found:
Figure 1: Heading north on Fauntleroy Way SW at the north end of Lincoln Park.
This is an example of a dedicated bike lane. Ideally, for a bicyclist, this is what Fauntleroy would look like all along the way: a nice mellow road with unobstructed views, light traffic, and a few parked cars. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, this is one of the longer stretches of contiguous bike lane along Fauntleroy, and it only runs for a few hundred feet.
Figure 2: Intersection of Fauntleroy Way SW and California Ave SW, heading northeast toward downtown.
By now, just a couple of blocks beyond where the first photo was taken, the dedicated bike lane has been merged back into the street traffic (more on this later) and the road has expanded from one car lane to two thru lanes and a left turn lane.
If I had wanted to turn left (north) onto California Ave SW, I would have had to dash across two car-filled lanes into a turn lane that most drivers believe belongs to them. It’s not much consolation to me that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has placed a Lilliputian decal inside the turn lane; the decal is tiny (about 12 inches high) and is all but invisible to motorists. Therefore, I advise dismounting and crossing at the crosswalk for any bicyclist who wants to turn left here.
Figure 3: Sexy new crosswalk at Fauntleroy Way SW and 40th Ave SW.
Note the casual way this pedestrian is making her way across the street with her luggage. This new crosswalk illustrates one of the main advantages of road diets for pedestrians: after a crosswalk upgrade, pedestrains are better able to see traffic coming from all sides, and traffic is better able to see them as well.
Figure 4: Sexy Crosswalk: the view-gle from Google.
Figure 5: Parking FAIL! (Vicinity of Fairmont Park.)
This is not a typical situation, but along the way I did encounter a number of parked cars, or parts thereof, sticking out into “my” lane. Some were wide-body vans that just couldn’t help themselves, but some were just sloppy parkers, like this person. In some cases, the main part of the car was in its own lane, but its mirror was sticking way out into mine, right about at the level of my head.
Did you know . . . natives of the remote island nation of Melapotamia believe that if you look into a mirror by accident, your face will be stuck there forever?
Even where parked cars give cyclists plenty of room, there’s still the danger of someone lurking in one of those cars opening his door into you as you ride by, which could be deadly. When this happens, you can take your choice of getting whacked by the door or being squashed by a semi as you veer away from the door and out into traffic.
Figure 6: “Sharrow” at the corner of SW Edmunds St. and Fauntleroy Way SW, heading north.
A “sharrow” (share + row) is a lane that is shared by bicycles and cars. What’s the difference between a sharrow and a regular traffic lane? —Not a damn thing, except that a sharrow has a bike decal on it. Big deal.
The car in the photo above has just made it through the intersection and is illegally cutting across lanes, probably getting ready to make a right onto SW Alaska. Good thing a there wasn’t some poor schmuck of a bicyclist there too, naively expecting the driver to “share.”
Sharrows on Fauntleroy are legion, and they pop up in the most unexpected places. On the northbound stretch alone, I counted at least six times when I had to transition, within seconds, from being in my own low-speed bike lane to sharing a lane with high-speed cars.
Figure 7: Mark & Oliver’s Semi-Permanent Hudson Street Yard Sale and Old-Fashioned Traffic Study Hoe Down.
I had just turned around at SW Alaska and was making my way home when I passed these two excellent gentlemen selling stuff in their yard near the corner of SW Hudson and Fauntleroy. They’re not actually as psychedelic as the photo makes them look, but I think the “Purple Haze” t-shirt Oliver was wearing may have affected the exposure. In any case, it’s a good photo, don’t you think?
Here’s a small sample of the cool stuff they were selling.
Figure 8: Cool stuff for sale. Check out the gorilla suit Mark and Oliver’s partner George is modeling. You just don’t see quality like that anymore.
When I asked Mark and Oliver about the “new vibe” that Fauntleroy had supposedly been resonating since the road diet, they said they’re feeling it. “It’s 100% better!” Mark said instantly. He described how, since the diet, he no longer feels that he’s taking his life in his hands every time he crosses the street. Before the diet, two lanes of car traffic each way meant that visibility was extremely poor for car and pedestrian alike. On the far side of the street, a driver in the first lane might stop and wait for you to cross, but maybe the driver coming up behind him in the second lane doesn’t see you because his vision was blocked. You could easily find yourself run down by that second drvier.
Now, with just one lane of traffic on each side of the street, it’s much safer for a pedestrian to cross at all points along the way.
I asked Mark and Oliver if they’d noticed more traffic jams on the road now and they said they hadn’t. They did note, however, that traffic now seems a bit less fraught. Before the diet, there was an average of one fender bender every two months at the Hudson intersection, as absent-minded drivers smacked into cars that had stopped and were waiting to make a left turn. But now, with dedicated left-turn lanes on both approaches, the accident rate has dropped to nil. (This is something SDOT could probably confirm.) Mark noted that a lot of drivers are still getting surprised when the road narrows just north of Hudson, and, as I stood there, I saw this happening with my own eyes. Southbound left-lane thru-driver’s who were not expecting their lane to end would trespass into the SW Hudson turn lane for a few seconds before making a hasty merge. However, while this maneuver is technically illegal, I’m guessing it is not a major safety issue.
Bottom line: Life is better for Mark and Oliver after the road diet.
Figure 9: Smoother moves. As the purple haze of early afternoon decays to a mellow shade of green, my new pal Mark explains how traffic used to act, before the road diet. Or maybe he’s just practicing for the big hula contest.
By now it was nearly 5:00 PM and the surging ferry traffic on Fauntleroy was making my spidey-cyclist sense tingle like a Mylar balloon caught in the power lines. Or something. I selected a VHS tape from the $1.00 bin (“America’s Sweethearts”), said my goodbyes to Mark and Oliver, and their silent partner George, and pedaled off to find the rest of America.
The Fauntleroy road diet is working for pedestrians and people who live along Fauntleroy. To a lesser extent, it also benefits drivers, by making left turns easier and safer. While traffic isn’t moving any faster, it’s not exactly being throttled either, and road stress appears to be down overall. Long live the new vibe!
For bicyclists, the benefit of the Fauntleroy road diet is marginal. While it has provided a few more miles of dedicated bike lanes, these new lanes are not continuous and they often end abruptly, forcing cyclists to merge back in with fast-moving traffic when it is not safe to do so. To my mind, the bike lanes are a wash.
And George thinks so too.
Don’t you, George?
Still, it's progress.
David Preston is a freelance writer and editor living in West Seattle. You can contact him at: DP_Editor at Comcast dot net.