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SAN JOSE — Lots of motorists are howling mad over a new configuration that has narrowed Lincoln Avenue through the heart of Willow Glen to make the corridor more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians.
That anger is likely to spread as more Bay Area cities pursue “road diets,” which reduce traffic lanes, add bicycle lanes and expand pedestrian crossings. Backers applaud the idea for making streets safer. Drivers stuck in slow traffic think planners are nuts.
Hans Larsen, chief of the San Jose Department of Transportation, said feedback to the Lincoln test is split equally between supporters and opponents. “Folks who are interested in a safe, calm and accessible place for walking, shopping, dining and biking seem to love it,” Larsen said. “Those that are interested in passing through quickly seem to hate it.”
A road diet typically takes a four-lane city street and removes two lanes while installing a center turning lane. A safety study found that crash frequencies at road diets were approximately 6 percent lower than at comparable streets.
The city will evaluate the Lincoln trial run after the three-month pilot project ends in May. The city will make the changes from Willow Road to Coe Avenue permanent only if Willow Glen business leaders and residents give their blessing and traffic data show a minimal impact. So far more than 300 people have commented to the Willow Glen Neighborhood Association.
The first four weeks have at times been chaotic: long backups, seemingly endless red lights and drivers behaving badly.
“I hate the road diet,” wrote Willow Glen resident Ursula Nanna, who claims her parked car was sideswiped during a prolonged traffic backup from north of Coe to Willow. “Before even starting my car, an impatient driver zoomed out of the traffic lane into the bike lane to avoid traffic, hit my driver’s side rear bumper hard, sped off in the bike lane before I could get any info.”
Diana Trinh, of Santa Clara, said she likes the idea of a road diet, but she’s not sure Lincoln can handle it.
“I don’t know if it will get better in a few weeks, but I drove up Lincoln the other day and it was terrible,” Trinh wrote. “I was stuck in a line for multiple cycles, and things were crawling up to Willow.”
The push toward road diets took off in 2008, when the state endorsed the concept of “complete streets” for urban neighborhoods in which the entire streetscape, from sidewalk to sidewalk, is geared for safe access and use by nondrivers.
San Jose has narrowed 10 streets over the past few years, including busy Hedding Street and now Alum Rock Avenue. San Francisco is by far the leader of this movement, with more than 70 streets on the diet list. Oakland converted High Street and Broadway. Mountain View’s downtown rejuvenation was given a boost when Castro Street was narrowed — restaurants, book stores and other shops flourished. Hayward removed one eastbound lane on C Street to improve pedestrian safety at the public library and a park across the street.
Morgan Hill has begun testing Monterey Road, and Sunnyvale will do the same on Mary Avenue.
Now it’s Lincoln under the diet microscope.
“As expected, the first few weeks were a little rough, as commuters and neighbors adjusted to the new lane alignment,” said Peter Allen, a board member of the Willow Glen Neighborhood Association. “There are still backups at the big intersections at Minnesota and Willow during rush hours, but traffic flows smoothly the rest of the day.
“Most importantly, drivers are slowing down, and we’re hearing positive reports from bicyclists and pedestrians who feel safer on Lincoln.”
Backers of road diets ask for patience and point to the recent changes on Hedding Street and Pruneridge Avenue in Santa Clara, both of which drew loud initial protests. But the complaints died down.
“Our experience,” Larsen said, “is that the strong negative reactions happen in the first month and then people either accept the change or find other times, routes and modes to travel.”
Willow Glen resident George Cenkner already likes the new configuration.
“Instead of the horrendous backups that were predicted, traffic is just, well, calmer,” he said. “I suspect that folks truly wanting to speed are simply finding alternate routes, but who cares about them anyway?”
Road diets aren’t the only big traffic plans afoot. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority is expected to decide later this year whether to take out two lanes on El Camino Real from Santa Clara to Palo Alto to accommodate express buses.
Let the howling commence.
Contact Gary Richards at mrroadshow.com or at 408-920-5335.
PLUSES AND MINUSES OF ROAD DIETS
Two-way center turn lane allows safer left turns, because turning traffic does not force following traffic to change lanes or stop.
Encourages cycling with 5- to 6-foot bike lanes.
Pedestrians need to cross fewer lanes of traffic.
Greater space between oncoming traffic as center-turn lane acts as a buffer.
Enables installation of wider sidewalks.
Added congestion during commute periods.
Drivers divert to side streets.
Parking on narrow streets can block view of drivers.
Less parking in some cases.