There is an epidemic of reckless driving in Milwaukee. Drivers have been blowing through stop signs, weaving through traffic, and passing in bike lanes — and law enforcement has been cracking down on this behavior.
But there are many solutions to reckless driving, which can include redesigning streets to encourage better driving behaviors. These redesigns are frequently referred to as “road diets,” and they are shown to decrease accidents and reduce the fatalities in crashes.
"[A road diet] is when you take a road that may have too many driving lanes in it and you reprioritize that space," says Kevin Muhs, the executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, an organization working to solve transit issues in the region.
On S. 2nd Street in Milwaukee, space was reprioritized to widen sidewalks and add greenspace and bike lanes. On S. 5th Street, between the interstate and Menomonee Valley, a road diet initiative allowed the city to install green infrastructure to improve stormwater drainage.
Intuitively, narrowing roads sounds less safe. Muhs says it depends on the circumstances, but generally "when you give automobiles more space than they need, people tend to just drive faster and that means that everybody else who isn’t in an automobile is more likely to die or be seriously injured if they have any interaction with that car."
Road diets could cause more fender benders, Muhs says, but there would be fewer serious injuries or fatalities. In fact, speed is a big determinant of a pedestrian's survivability if they're hit by a car.
"Once you get down to 25 mph ... it's something like 90% of people survive," Muhs explains. "When you go up towards 35 ... 40 mph it drops to less than half of people survive."
Adding turn lanes where possible can also be part of road dieting. Muhs says they improve decision making and remove turning drivers from moving traffic, decreasing the chance of back-to-back collisions.
Additionally, there are "traffic calming measures," which can be included in road diets, but that don't necessarily include changing the driving lanes. They can improve traffic and increase safety. Curb bumpouts, for example, can lessen the distance pedestrians have to cross. Or, on smaller streets, traffic circles and speed humps help slow traffic.
Do roads that go through dieting have worse traffic? Muhs says that's why picking the right roads, based on what they're used for first, is important.
"Are people using that road mostly to get to the destinations right in that area, or are they using it to get through an area? If ... it's to get to the destinations in the area, it's not going to have a significant impact on their travel time — and, really, it's going to improve everything that happens after they park their car," he says.
It would improve getting to those business, sidewalk space for businesses, and generally add vibrancy to a neighborhood. In the urban planning world, Muhs says, there's a discussion about good congestion versus bad congestion.
"You really want some congestion because it shows that the neighborhood is vibrant and economically successful," Muhs says.