Response to recent criticisms of Road Diet analysis

Danville resident Wilma Brown authored a letter to the editor appearing in today’s Advocate Messenger. Her letter questions the applicability of the Road Diet analysis performed by my students earlier this month (see here and here) to the situation here in Danville. Her primary concern deals with how closely the businesses surveyed in both Georgetown and Elizabethtown match the situation that local businesses have on Danville’s Main Street. Specifically, she argues that in neither community (in contrast to Danville) the businesses surveyed are located directly on the streets where the lane reductions (“Road Diet”) have recently occurred.

In my view, Ms. Brown raises a fair point which deserves consideration. I do not disagree with her argument that neither Georgetown nor Elizabethtown are directly comparable to Danville given the points that were raised in her letter the editor. That being said, social scientists and urban planners are rarely presented with a situation where there is a perfect and direct comparison case to study in trying to analyze the potential effects of various policy decisions. City of Danville officials, working together with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, worked for several weeks to try to find a “perfect” comparison city in Kentucky with the same size, economics, traffic patterns, etc. as Danville and ultimately decided to ask the students in my class to survey businesses in both Georgetown and Elizabethtown, those two cities being what they determined to be the closest possible comparison communities to Danville, with the closest possible comparison businesses to survey. As with all public endeavors, we do the very best we can with the evidence and resources available to us.

Ultimately, is the analysis that my students performed perfect? No. But neither is any other report that has been presented or evidence offered so far on the subject. That is why I recommended at the community meeting last Thursday that my students’ report be considered as one piece of evidence to add to the mix of evidences being collected. I repeat what I said at the meeting: we are more likely to come to more accurate picture of the reality of something by gathering as much data as possible on the topic using as many different approaches as possible and then taking the “average” of the entire picture of evidence. The report that my students contributed to Danville’s Road Diet discussion should be considered as one piece of evidence to contribute to the discussion, but certainly not to end the discussion. While Georgetown and Elizabethtown are certainly not perfect comparison communities, more appropriate comparisons have yet to be brought forth to the public discussion. While there may not be “slam dunk” evidence that Road Diets have no effect on local businesses, neither has there been compelling and systematic evidence presented that Road Diets have detrimental effects either.

Personally, taking the “average of everything” approach, I think the available evidence is persuasive that we can confidently say that lane reductions make communities safer for both pedestrians and automobiles. I also think that the available evidence is ultimately insufficient to be able to say with confidence whether lane reductions have adverse or beneficial effects on local businesses adjacent to lane-reduced thoroughfares. What little evidence there is provides a mixed picture. Further evidence and research is certainly warranted.

For example, doing a quick Google search of “Road Diet economic impact” reveals a number of analyses and reports from communities around the country. These are some of the first things that populated the search results:

I invite community members to take a look at these reports and consider their research designs, findings, and appropriateness of comparability to Danville. I also invite community members to continue their research (beyond a five-minute Google search as I presented above) as to the advantages and disadvantages, both to public safety as well as local businesses, of Road Diet plans in determining whether or not to support such a proposal in Danville. I commend Ms. Brown and other community members for their careful attention to important public issues such as this. As with any important public matter, citizens as well as public officials have the obligation to gather as much evidence as possible and weigh competing trade-offs between public safety and economic vitality (as well as many other considerations) in coming to a final decision. 

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