What do Copernicus and SDOT have in common?

Did you hear this morning’s radio story about Copernicus, the 16th century astronomer who made the outrageous conclusion that the Earth revolved around the Sun?

In the 1500’s it seemed pretty obvious to almost everyone that the Earth doesn’t spin or move, and that the planets and stars move around us.  Naturally, before Copernicus made his bold conclusion, he did his research and studied data about the movement of stars and planets. 

But the public didn’t buy it.  As the radio story said, “any sophisticated scientific argument that seems to defy common sense will be hard for nonscientists to accept.” 

Ok, stay with me, here’s where SDOT comes in…

The radio story made me wonder if SDOT staff might feel a little bit like Copernicus when they present a project to the public that, to some people, defies common sense. 

Lately SDOT has been doing some road reconfiguration projects where we reduce the number of lanes in each direction from two lanes to one, usually add a left turn lane and sometimes add bike lanes.  These projects improve safety and access for all users of the roadway.

When some folks hear about these projects, their initial response is that having fewer travel lanes will mean more backups and congestion.   It’s just common sense, right?

But the thing is, SDOT staff recommend such changes only after doing their research and confirming that the data show that traffic levels are low enough for a reconfiguration to work.  In other words, the safety improvements outweigh the slight increases in travel times.

What would Copernicus think of the reconfiguration of Fauntleroy Way? (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The science is catching on.  Publicola.com recently reported that yet another lane reconfiguration project works as SDOT predicted.   Publicola pointed to info in SDOT’s 2010 Traffic Report released in October, which shows the reconfigured Fauntleroy Way SW in West Seattle is very successful.   Collisions dropped while travel times increased just slightly. 

Publicola summed it up by saying, “Road diets, in other words, work—improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists and calming traffic while keeping car traffic moving smoothly.”

Score another one for research and data.

Who knows–maybe in 500 years every school kid will know that reconfigured roadways can move just as many vehicles while increasing safety and access for all users of the road.