Austin, Texas sees road safety and operations improvements with “right sizing”

By Robbie Webber

Austin, Texas has released a report detailing their 15-year effort to “right size” streets throughout the city, and the results have been positive. Travel times on the studied segments have not increased, crashes are down by as much as 38 percent, and high-risk speeding has significantly decreased. In some cases travel times and traffic volumes have actually increased because the roads operate more efficiently.

Since 1999, the city has right-sized 37 streets during road reconstruction or resurfacing. Most of these projects have involved going from a four-lane configuration to three lanes with added bike lanes; however, Jolleyville Road remained a five-lane road but had bike lanes added by narrowing all lanes to ten feet.

Although such “road diets” are now relatively common, Austin was one of the early pioneers, according to Austin Transportation Department engineer Nathan Wilkes. The right-sizing projects address multiple issues: speeding, the need for bicycle accommodations, overall safety problems, and Austin’s dedication to Complete Streets.

Some of the projects undertaken had posted speed limits of 35 MPH, but experienced frequent high-risk speeds of over 45 MPH with noticeable numbers of drivers going over 55 MPH. After being right sized, these high-risk speeds diminished considerably, making the roads safer for all users. In addition, travel times have not changed on the major of roads, and crash incidence has been reduced.

Early projects were met with resistance in the community, but the transportation department has developed an extensive community involvement process to ensure there is public consensus before undertaking lane changes. After multiple projects were successful, and as interest in multimodal streets has increased, neighborhoods and drivers have felt more comfortable with changes to street design. Wilkes says that the report was an effort to catalogue the results and show that travel times and road safety have not been compromised. “We are trying to leverage our street maintenance program to make streets safer for all users.”

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.