GRAND RAPIDS — City planners hope a road diet along the Michigan Street corridor will move traffic more efficiently and help reduce crashes.
The road diet, planned for this spring, will extend from College Avenue to Eastern Avenue on the northeast side of Grand Rapids. Modifications include changing the striping configuration to create one travel lane in either direction and a center left-turn lane, plus a parking lane on the south side of the road.
Currently, the road is marked for four lanes with a double center line. Parking is allowed outside of rush hours, when all four lanes are used for travel.
“The outside lanes are either travel lanes or parking lanes depending on what time of day it is, which is confusing to say the least,” said John Bartlett, traffic systems engineer for the city.
The road diet was recommended by the city’s Michigan Street Corridor Improvement District after businesses and residents expressed concern about pedestrian safety, parking, vehicle volume and speeds.
Road diets have been used for decades as a way for cities to take back space they’ve given to cars in an attempt to preserve traffic flow while improving safety and expanding mobility.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, road diets can result in a 19-47 percent reduction in crashes, less variation in driver speeds in the same area, improved mobility and access by road users, and integration of the roadway into surrounding uses that “result in an enhanced quality of life.”
A “classic” road diet involves what’s being implemented along the Michigan Street corridor by converting an existing four-lane, undivided roadway into a three-lane configuration comprised of two traffic lanes and a center left-turn lane. According to the FHA, four-lane undivided highways experience relatively high crash frequencies.
The treatment has been used on more than 40 miles of roadway in Grand Rapids over the last 10 years, Bartlett said.
The desired outcomes of the Michigan Street project align with the reasons communities typically pursue road diets, Barlett said.
Between 15,000 and 17,000 vehicles per day travel that section of Michigan Street, which is an artery along the Medical Mile and into downtown Grand Rapids. Bartlett said the traffic under its current configuration is “fast-moving” compared to the posted speed limit, which is 25 miles per hour.
Tests by the city along the section of Michigan Street showed 85 percent of vehicles were traveling at or below 36 miles per hour.
“So you’re in that 10 to 11 over the posted speed limit range, which is difficult to enforce and it also significantly increases the risk of serious injury and crashes, particularly involving pedestrians,” Bartlett said.
According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, speed limits are typically set according to the 85th percentile speed. In Grand Rapids’ Vital Streets Plan, which was approved in 2016, planners also consider the context of the street and all the purposes they want the road to serve, including walking, biking, transit and personal vehicles.
“We look at what are the speeds that we feel the corridor or the roadway should be traveling at, and then we work our design around that intended speed,” Bartlett said.
That was the driver for another recent road diet on Burton Street from Division Avenue to Breton Road on the city’s southeast side. This project, which was completed between 2014 and 2018, had similar characteristics to the Michigan Street corridor and a similar previous configuration.
After the road diet on Burton Street, the 85th percentile speed dropped by 8-9 miles per hour, Bartlett said, adding that crashes were reduced by 67 percent and police have had to write 80 percent fewer speeding tickets.
“I think overall we’ve been pretty pleased with them, especially from a safety capacity,” he said of road diets.
In recent years, the Michigan Street corridor has become more urbanized, with infill development including apartments and ground-level businesses. These changes have contributed to increased traffic volume and parking needs.
In particular, nearby businesses had concerns that on-street parking was available only some of the time, during non-rush hours, Bartlett said. Having dedicated parking on the south side of the street also will provide a buffer between traffic and pedestrians.
When considering options for the road diet on Michigan Street, planners noted that public transit also played a factor. The roadway is designated as a transit-priority corridor in the city’s Vital Streets Plan, said Kristin Bennett, transportation planner/programs supervisor for the city of Grand Rapids.
“Michigan’s a really tough one because it’s very constrained, obviously, with a lot of traffic, and we’re trying to move a lot of people using transit in particular,” she said.
In August, The Rapid bus line that serves the Medical Mile and Bridge Street area became fare-free as a result of funding from the city and Spectrum Health, a major employer along the corridor, for a three-year trial period. Route 19 is now free to riders and runs more frequently, highlighting the need for a more efficient traffic corridor, Bennett said.
Planners do not intend to add bike lanes along the route because it is a transit-focused corridor, Bartlett said, noting that slowing the traffic could make more experienced cyclists comfortable traveling on the roadway.
Still, cyclists have other nearby options.
“We’re really looking at alternatives, nearby parallel corridors, as the primary bike corridors,” Bennett said. “We’re investing in Fountain and Lyon, and Crescent is not a bad one right behind there as well.”