While traveling or shopping Williamson Road in Roanoke, you may have noticed a slate of “No Road Diet” signs and wondered what they mean. They have been installed in in response to the recent proposals to improve the corridor, and I wanted to take a moment to describe what is – and is not – a road diet.
A road diet is, generally speaking, any effort that modifies or reduces a road’s existing number of lanes to make any number of improvements, including increasing transportation options, improving safety, better managing traffic flow, reducing travel speeds, etc.
The proposal for Williamson Road is certainly a road diet, but some of the concerns about the impacts, I think, are misplaced. For the following discussion, it would be useful to visit the City of Roanoke’s website for the project to review the conceptual drawings the the most recent presentation to the Improvement Committee.
Here are my thoughts on several concerns that have been expressed about the project:
It Will Increase Congestion
While there can be fears that a road diet can increase congestion, a properly implemented road diet will actually increase a corridor’s throughput – meaning the same number of vehicles can traverse it at the same rate both before and after the changes. The goal of a road diet is often to reduce speeds and improve safety, and it’s important to recognize that decreasing speeds does not automatically mean increasing congestion. Think of it like this: a certain corridor might have a higher overall speed but a lot more stopping and starting from traffic lights, turning, parking entrance/exits, etc., meaning more stop-and-go traffic, with high-speed bursts followed by lots of waiting. Not only can this be frustrating for the driver, but its dangerous for pedestrians and cyclist who may need to interact with traffic while riding along with it or trying to cross it. Since Williamson Road has a plethora of businesses that line both sides of the road, safe pedestrian crossing and cars safely turning into and out from driveways is a real issue. A modification that slows traffic down overall while allowing more consistent travel time and safe turning lanes and crosswalks could be a real boon to the navigability of Williamson.
Why Are They Taking it From Four Lanes to Two?
Good news: They’re not! The most recent proposal would take Williamson from four vehicle travel lanes, no bicycle accommodations, and irregular pedestrian accommodations, to three travel lanes – a lane in each direction and a center turning lane to make accessing businesses on either side easier (cars are now crossing one lane of traffic instead of two), a bicycle lane in each direction, and consistent sidewalks along both sides.
Won’t This Hurt Businesses?
Williamson Road relies on being a destination for shopping, dining, and retail. As it stands, it might not meet these needs for two reasons: 1) the current four lane design can make it difficult to turn into businesses on the opposite side of the street, and the stop-and-go traffic can make identifying a business you are looking for tough while also keeping your eyes on the road. 2) Traffic on Williamson is driven, in part, by through-traffic traveling from Orange to Hershberger (or vice versa) and beyond, so while the number of cars in the corridor may give the appearance of a large number of customers, many of these drivers have no intention of stopping along Williamson to shop – they are simple trying to cut through as fast as possible. A road design that makes it easier to find your destinations along Williamson but might frustrate someone who just wants to drive through as fast as possible actually helps businesses by making it a more attractive place to to drive as well as to bike and walk. Both 581 and Plantation Road provide parallel, and more appropriate, thoroughfares for those trying to make it quickly to from north to south.
It should also be noted that the committee formed by the Williamson Road Business Association over a year ago to review and make recommendations on this project was made up of representatives of many businesses and neighborhood groups along the road, and the existing proposal was supported by all of the business representatives and the vast majority of the neighborhood representatives.
Frustrated Drivers Will Just Drive Through The Neighborhoods
In some cases, this would certainly be a concern. Fortunately, none of the neighborhoods on either side of Williamson have easy north-south access – it’s one of the times that Roanoke’s overall lack of grid design comes in handy! A driver thinking they’ll find a quick cut through the residential areas will quickly find themselves switching back and forth along any number of roads. Indeed, neither west nor east of Williamson provides a single north-south residential road, and certainly no combination of roads that are faster than 581 or Williamson.
Williamson Road is a significant and important corridor in the Valley, and it’s only right that folks are concerned about any significant changes to it. There are always ways that projects like this can go wrong or can miss out on the needs of a particular class of user. I feel confident that the significant amount of work done before getting to the latest proposal has done an excellent job of meeting these concerns and have developed a concept that improves safety and adds access for those who can’t or choose not to drive, while improving access to local businesses and inconveniencing only those drivers for whom Williamson is not their destination – and in only a minor respect at that. I’m pleased to see the breadth of discussion surrounding this project and welcome any questions that folks have – feel free to engage RIDE Solutions here or over at our Facebook page.