Sticking to a Road Diet

A recent story out of Herriman captures the difficulty of trying to improve cities in the face of resident… obstinacy.

According to KSL’s Alex Cabrero, residents in the Salt Lake suburb felt cars were going too fast on Emmeline Drive. They complained to the city, which spent two years figuring out what many people could have told them for free in a single text message: shrinking lane width will slow down cars.

It’s a fairly simple and inexpensive solution, and to the city’s credit they actually installed narrower lanes. Problem solved.

Except that it wasn’t. In fact, that’s when things got really weird because the neighbors actually opposed the new safety-oriented narrow lanes:

“We don’t like it because it’s ugly,” Lambert said. “But it’s not just that it’s ugly, (it’s) that this should feel like a neighborhood road, and it doesn’t.”

KSL’s story even casts the issue as a conflict between safety and popularity. That’s a baffling conflict; shouldn’t safety always be popular? Especially when the community called for more safety in the first place?

Emmeline Drive in Herriman. Residents wanted cars to drive slower on this street so the city painted narrow lanes. The residents then opposed the lanes an aesthetic grounds.

The real issue with this street, by the way, is that it’s a stroad in the middle of the most problematic kind of sprawl.

In any case, the incident captures the all-too-common phenomenon wherein people oppose a demonstrably good idea — one that actually makes their lives better —because it doesn’t fit a predetermined idea of what a neighborhood or street should look like. I’ve seen people similarly express their opposition to things like higher density housing, mixed use neighborhoods, and public transit that all have quantifiable benefits. I’ve even seen experts patiently explain these ideas, only to have people maintain their opposition for reasons similar to those cited by the Herriman residents.

Look, change is hard for everyone but this sort of intellectual recalcitrance in the face of overwhelming evidence — and municipal leaders willing to take action — hurts everyone. It’s also found in communities everywhere.

Ultimately, I think that city residents typically have great ideas about their surroundings. The Herriman residents may well have had good reasons for opposing the changes that simply weren’t articulated or included in the news article. And of course there’s danger in always blindly trusting expert solutions for city problems.

But “it’s ugly” is not a logical reason to avoid fixing unsafe streets. Opposing something simply because it’s different or new or whatever is irrational. Everyone can have an opinion, but everyone also has the responsibility to stay informed and be adaptable.

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