Healthy Streets 101: The Road Diet
Enhancing the livability of a community
A healthy street is a place where all people of all ages and abilities can safely move from place to place regardless of their transportation mode – walking, biking, taking transit, or driving.
Why should we build healthy streets? People are mentally and physically healthier, when communities design neighborhoods to promote physical activity. Happy, healthy people are more productive in society, thus creating a vibrant, healthy, livable community. In essence, a healthy community is a place where the physical environment supports healthy behavior and good health. In fact, our environment – the physical, social, economic environment – is responsible for more than 60% of our health. Our genes are only responsible for about 15% of our health. In the public health world, they call this “social determinants of health,” or root causes. Public health professionals often say, “make the healthy choice, the easy choice.” Most of these healthy choices stem from our environment. Is it easy to walk or bike? Is it easy to choose water over soda? Is it easy to choose healthy food over unhealthy food? The environment provides us with choices, but often those unhealthy choices are the easiest. Therefore, every strategy, action, or policy that a community adopts can enhance or hinder the health of the community.
How can we build healthy streets? When we increase space for people to be active in their daily lives, we improve the health of the people living here and the economic health of the community. Healthier people means fewer health care costs, an increase in economic productivity (fewer sick days equals more work days), and an increase in economic development. Many of our roads are over-built (more lanes or lane-width than we need) and can easily be re-sized to make room for people to safely and easily walk, bike, and take transit. The speed limit and design of the road influences how safe it is for all people regardless of transportation mode (walking, biking, taking transit, or driving). Drivers are 40-59% likely to yield to pedestrians on two-lane streets with a speed limit of 25 or 30 MPH, but drivers are less than 15% likely to yield to pedestrians on a four-lane street with a speed limit of 35 MPH or more. Imagine for a moment a 4-lane street – perhaps you are imagining a specific street in your neighborhood. That 4-lane street might experience about 6,000 vehicles per day (for reference, Navarro experiences about 36,000 vehicle per day). This street has a speed limit of 30 mph, lane widths of about 14 feet, and a parking lane that is not used. The street does not have bicycle lanes or sidewalks. The community can use the road diet solution to reallocate this street space to decrease the amount of lanes and/or decrease lane widths to create a safe space for people to walk and bike. If funds are tight, the community can install a quick, cheap solution to create a safe space for people to walk and bike by putting up moveable barriers (e.g., flex posts, bollards, or planters) about six-feet or more from the curb. This creates a “protected” space for people to safely walk and bike without moving curbs or building traditional sidewalks. The community can implement a pilot project to test out its efficacy.
Road diets also help communities reallocate space more equitably for all people. The road diet concept is not new. Communities have installed road diets in every state in the nation, and some communities have been enhancing streets through road diets for more than two decades. It is widely accepted as a best practice solution to increase street safety for all people of all ages and abilities. An equitable transportation system provides safe options for all transportation modes in all neighborhoods across the community. Many communities that have complete streets policies use road diets as one of their key strategies to build complete streets. The Federal Highway Administration recommends road diets, and even has a handbook that provides detailed information.
Want to learn more?
Take a 15-minute walk and listen to this pedcast (walking podcast) on health, transportation, and road diets.
Watch this 2-minute video to see and hear explanations of different road diet conversions.
This evidence-based guide, Rethinking Streets, demonstrates 25 different street transformations from across the country.
The Healthy Streets Guide provides guidance for communities who are working to ensure their Complete Streets policy creates real, on-the-ground change.
1.) Howard F, Lawrence F, Jackson R. Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, Building for Healthy Communities; 2004.
2.) Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Health Canada, Population and Public Health Branch AB/NWT 2002; Qi L, Cho YA, 2008. Gene–environment interaction and obesity. Nutr Rev. 2008; 66:684–94.
3.) Schneider RJ, Sanders RL, Planning. Pedestrian Safety Practitioners’ Perspectives of Driver Yielding Behavior across North America; 2014.
TRANSPORTATION MODE: the method of moving from the place to place – walk, bike, take transit, drive. Often displayed as: pedestrian, bicycle, transit, and auto or vehicle.
COMPLETE STREET: a street that accommodates all people of all ages and abilities. A complete street is for everyone – people walking, biking, taking transit, and driving.
ROAD DIET: also called “right-sizing the road,” reallocates the street space to provide a safe space for people walk, bike, take transit, as well as drive. The most common form of road diet in the U.S. is the 4-to-3-lane conversion. The original road has 4 vehicle lanes. The converted road has 2 vehicle through-lanes, a center turn lane, and painted bike lanes.
SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH: The environmental conditions – where you live, learn, work, play, worship, and age – that affect your health and overall quality of life. These conditions include, housing quality, income, education, neighborhood safety, access to healthy food, safe drinking water, access to safe physical activity options, and safe social engagements.