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Road diet: Computers catch on, traffic slows

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Carlisle's traffic-calming road diet in downtown hasn't been without inconveniences, but the system's computers will improve with time, as will the business environment, borough officials and restaurant owners said.

The city embarked on its road diet in 2008 as a way to reduce the speed of vehicles through the business area and to better manage increases in street-clogging traffic detoured through the downtown because of highway accidents. The goal was to make the borough more walkable, with the spinoff effect that it could increase foot traffic to downtown businesses.

The $2.8 million plan includes reducing travel lanes to one each way on Hanover and High streets, with turn lanes at intersections and a dedicated bike lane each way. The borough started work last year to install traffic and walk signals, central computers to manage light timing, and construction for sidewalk "bump-outs" that would reduce intersection crossing distances. The plan is wrapping up with the signal switchovers, paving and line painting this month.

"We definitely saw an improvement in traffic flow as we went through that process," said Stephen Hietsch, Carlisle's borough manager.

The system caused some issues with Carlisle Events Inc.'s Spring Carlisle car show April 25-29, Hietsch said. However, the heavy traffic was not solely due to the road diet. Even Interstate 81 was backed up for miles at the Route 11 exits due to the increase in traffic volume, he said.

"There are always issues with Spring Carlisle," he said.

Some businesses see the road diet changes as both a blessing and an inconvenience.

"Traffic is slower, which some will say is a con. But we're trying to get outdoor seating, so it's nicer for people sitting outside," said Ashleigh Corby, general manager of Market Cross Pub & Brewery at 113 N. Hanover St.

The car show traffic is always more chaotic than on an average day, so it's difficult to judge whether that's an indication of problems on a regular basis, she said.

Market Cross' business hasn't been harmed by the road diet changes, but the number of people coming into town around lunchtime seems to be lower, Corby said. The shift could be due to a mentality that congestion could leave less time for people to enjoy a lunch and get back to the office on time, she said. That would have more impact on businesses open only during daylight hours, she said.

"I think some (businesses) are still nervous people won't come into town because they can't get through as fast," Corby said.

Speed could be considered an enemy of retail and restaurant businesses in Carlisle, said Bill Seras, owner of the Back Door Café at 156 W. High St. Slower traffic allows drivers a chance to see what type of shops and eateries are downtown, hopefully persuading them to park and stay a while, he said.

"There's so many reasons for this project," said Seras, who also is a board member with the downtown business group Downtown Carlisle Association. "It's going to beautify the area, but slowing the traffic is the big thing."

So far, the changes haven't had an impact on the café's business, he said. It has an established customer base from 25 years of serving coffee, sandwiches and other fare, plus it draws foot traffic from the college, he said.

The situation is likely to improve gradually over the next three months, Hietsch said. It takes about that long for the computer system running the traffic and pedestrian signals to gather enough data on patterns to improve the traffic flow for peak efficiency, he said. During that time, the system calculates new timing for the signals; meaning the more people use it, the better it gets, he said.

During the first car show, the traffic signals weren't synced yet, causing some issues, but overall the changes will be better for the borough, Seras said. With construction and tech work wrapping up, it's a wait-and-see scenario, he said.

"Once it's done, the jury can be out," Seras said.

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