"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 1, 2016

Should Fayette Street Go On A Diet?

The reviving river mill town of Conshohocken, Pa. is seeing the problems that come from a rapid influx of new residents.  Among these, traffic congestion brings by far the most complaints.  To speed up traffic flow, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is proposing a fundamental change in the layout of the Borough’s prime thoroughfare, Fayette Street.  Borough Council, however, wants to increase pedestrian safety.  PennDOT calls its proposal a “Road Diet,” and says putting Fayette Street on it will help to alleviate both concerns.  Is it possible to both speed up traffic flow and increase pedestrian safety?  Conshy residents should pay close attention to this one.

For those readers unfamiliar with Conshohocken, Pa., the following two paragraphs sum up the basics about the town and its backbone, Fayette Street.  Those of you familiar with the area may safely skip them.

Conshohocken, Pa., is a municipality (a “borough”) of approximately one square mile, virtually all of which sits on a hillside, terminating at a particularly scenic curve of the Schuylkill River.  Fayette Street proceeds down the hillside that is Conshohocken to the floodplain below, effectively bisecting the town (its name derives from the fact that it is a considerably straightened version of the route General Lafayette’s troops took in the retreat from Philadelphia that culminated at Valley Forge).  The street is the left bank’s only direct means to cross the river and access the intersection of two Interstate highways in the adjoining but much smaller Borough of West Conshohocken.  This intersection, completed in the 1980s, has transformed both the formerly downtrodden mill towns.  The floodplains of both are seeing condominiums, apartments and hotels replace the long-defunct mills, while the value of older homes up the hill continues to rise.  The two boroughs are connected by the Matsonford Bridge, which indicates the reason both Conshohockens came into existence in the first place.

The lowest section of Fayette Street has been transformed as part of the effort to accommodate the steadily increasing volume of traffic over the bridge.  It is the upper stretch—most of the street, actually—that is now the subject of discussion.  This stretch of Fayette Street is four lanes wide, plus a parking lane on each side.  There are stoplights, but only at a minority of the intersections.  Left turns onto Fayette from Borough streets thus require crossing two lanes of incoming traffic before turning and merging into one of the two lanes in the other direction (legally, only the near lane, but you know how traffic behaves).  During high traffic periods this can be an intimidating task.  Equally intimidating is the effort a pedestrian much exert to walk across four lanes of traffic in the absence of a traffic light.

Fayette Street carries Borough residents on their way to the Interstates across the river, but also carries traffic into and out of the Borough from the neighboring townships of Whitemarsh and Plymouth, some of which is headed to/from these highways.  It is thus, by definition, an “arterial road.”  Wikipedia defines this as “a high-capacity urban road,” and identifies its primary function as “to deliver traffic from collector roads to freeways or expressways and between urban centers at the highest level of service possible."  The engineering terminology derives from large urban centers, but in a municipality of only one square mile, the usual distinction between “collector roads” and urban streets is irrelevant.  Many of Conshohocken’s urban streets debouch directly onto Fayette Street.

To get traffic moving more quickly, PennDOT wants to put Fayette Street on a “Road Diet.”  It proposes to convert the current four-lane structure to three lanes, consisting of one through lane in each direction and a center two-way left-turn lane.  The parking lanes on each side would not be altered.

Just how can fewer lanes improve the flow of traffic?  The major reason is that by changing the four lanes to three you make the center lane a mutual left-turn lane, for both directions.  Such an arrangement can do wonders for that bugaboo of urban driving, getting stuck behind a car making a left turn.  Absent a designated left-turn lane, the left lane, so-called “fast” lane, is periodically blocked by cars stopped to make a turn and waiting for oncoming traffic to clear.  In even light traffic, those annoying delays can frustrate drivers, particularly those who wish to pass through the town as quickly as possible.  “Studies show that…” as the experts say, going on a road diet actually speeds up traffic flow.

But the June 2nd article in MoreThanTheCurve.Com about the proposal pointed out a potential conflict:  while PennDOT’s goal is “to create conditions to move vehicles as quickly and effectively as possible…the municipality wants to slow traffic and create a safer environment.”

So what about Conshohocken’s stated goal of increasing pedestrian safety?  There will be fewer lanes to cross, but more traffic at a higher speed travelling along them.

This is where things get interesting, at least for us non-traffic engineers.  It appears that while PennDOT sees a road diet as increasing both the speed and the density of traffic, Borough Council sees it doing the exact opposite.  As the article in MoreThanTheCurve.Com put it, “Members of Borough Council seemed interested in this concept as a way to calm traffic and discourage pass through traffic in the Borough.  For example, if a commuter is coming from Whitemarsh, this new configuration might encourage him or her to access [Interstate] 76 off Chemical Road instead of driving down Fayette Street to the bridge.”

The Wikipedia articles on arterial roads and road diets offer a fascinating juxtaposition.  An arterial road should deliver traffic at “the highest level of service,” (in both speed and density), but “Proponents of road diets generally believe key benefits include LOWER VEHICULAR SPEEDS [emphasis mine], reduced crash rates, and improved pedestrian safety.”  That’s probably why the Borough Council and Administration see merit in the proposal.  Borough Mayor Bob Frost even suggested that if the project goes forward, the lane configuration change be extended one block closer to the bridge.

The Federal Highway Administration would appear to agree.  MoreThanTheCurve.Com quoted it as saying, “A roadway configuration known as a Road Diet offers several high-value improvements at a low cost when applied to traditional four-lane undivided highways.  In addition to low cost, the primary benefits of a Road Diet include enhanced safety, mobility and access for all road users and a “complete streets” environment to accommodate a variety of transportation modes.”

For Fayette Street, that means a dedicated bicycle lane on each side of the street.  Expediting bicyclists on Fayette Street can have a very beneficial effect.  The nation’s finest river valley trail system—The Schuylkill River Trail—traverses Conshohocken’s floodplain.  I have written previously about my concern that the “old” Conshy up the hill will be isolated from the “new” Conshy down below.  Bicycle lanes will certainly help, but the proposal does not provide a dedicated connection to the Trail.  What are bicyclists going to do on those last two blocks before the floodplain, on those streets most choked by traffic?  Connecting to that fantastic Schuylkill Valley Trail could be difficult, if not dangerous.

Bicycle lanes are but a small component of the plan.  The proposal was only an introductory one, and many details need to be filled in.  And that’s just in Conshohocken itself.  As Fayette Street beyond 12th Street becomes Butler Pike, separating the two townships of Plymouth and Whitemarsh, PennDOT’s proposal would involve—and require the approval of—both these municipalities.

All too often, planning decisions come down to which gets priority, the community or the drivers, and community rarely wins.  What will happen in this case?  Can Fayette Street after a Road Diet increase both traffic flow and pedestrian safety?  The initial confusion over just what a “Road Diet” is going to accomplish in Conshohocken, Pa. is likely the result of relying on Wikipedia to analyze a specific situation, which is why I am sharing this post with groups of people who actually understand the subject.  I want to understand better, but the residents of Conshohocken, Pa. are the ones who need the guidance more.

Thus I close with an appeal to those of you who read this and who actually do understand how roads, traffic and “road diets” work, to help inform the residents of Conshohocken more fully than I can.  You can communicate to me on this blog site and I will share your thoughts, or do so directly to residents on the following Facebook pages: