MassDOT shifts bike-promotion strategy from trails back to streets
After years spent developing dedicated bike paths, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation plans to focus on making everyday streets more accommodating to bike transportation, including in the Berkshires.
"All around the state, people are looking at active transportation modes. We're looking to tap into that," said Pete Sutton, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for MassDOT.
When state roads come up for repair or reconstruction in 2017 and after, the interests of bicyclists and pedestrians will be considered more closely, Sutton told The Eagle.
His remarks come as the department begins work to update the Massachusetts Bicycle Transportation Plan. Since the last plan was put together in 2008, the way people choose to use bicycles has evolved, Sutton said, particularly in urban areas where bike sharing programs exist.
Here in the Berkshires, the state will focus on ways to help bicyclists feel safer on state roads, at a time when studies show riders are looking for trips of three miles or less.
"That's kind of the sweet spot people are looking for," Sutton said.
To one bicycling activist, the state's game plan falls short.
"Personally, I think that's a copout," said John Galt, treasurer of the Berkshire Bike Path Council.
That group continues to advocate for longer, dedicated bike trails. Galt said he is hopeful that the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail will be extended south from the Berkshire Mall to the Allendale area in Pittsfield.
"They're working on it. It all just takes a lot of time," Galt said.
At the same time, MassDOT says it will continue to back efforts to promote longer distance bicycle tourism — including efforts to link bike-friendly routes in the Berkshires. "That's already a growth area out there and could be expanded on," he said.
For years, bicycling advocates in the county, including the Berkshire Bike Path Council, have been pushing to link sections of trails with roads.
One of the most ambitious routes of that kind is U.S. Bike Route 7, which can be used to travel north-south through Berkshire County, from Connecticut up into Vermont. The option uses both Route 7 and nearby roads. Sutton said MassDOT can play a role by creating better signs to guide long-distance travelers.
More than 11,000 miles of U.S. routes in 24 states have so far been incorporated into the system, according to the Adventure Cycling website.
Galt, of the Berkshire Bike Path Council, said he believes the state missed an opportunity to promote bicycling when a project to widen Route 20 from Pittsfield to Lenox did not allow a safe travel space for bicyclists. "You can get killed trying to ride your bike on that road," he said.
Sutton said MassDOT is looking for ways to provide more appealing on-street routes for bicyclists by creating bike lanes.
While some lanes are simply indicated by paint on pavement, another option includes a wholly separate lane five feet wide for riders.
In some urban settings, the area left for parked cars is moved out further into the road. Those cars then provide a barrier that separates passing cars from bicycles.
Sutton said that communities like North Adams, Lee and Pittsfield are all options for the separate bike lane concept.
In Berkshire County, the town of Egremont is taking part in a MassDOT project that's designed to give riders and pedestrians their due.
The state's "complete streets" program has allocated $12.5 million in funding this year. Using MassDOT grants, communities have been holding street fairs to highlight how different use of roads can promote social and economic activity.
Sutton said the department wants to hold one in Pittsfield and may partner with the Berkshire Bike Path Council on it.
When busy state roads are rebuilt, another option is to create "bike boxes" at intersections, providing places for bicyclists to queue up with traffic. The boxes are designed to make riders feel safer and more visible. "They can wait in a designated spot. Hopefully we'll be rolling out more of those," Sutton said.
Jackie DeWolfe, director of sustainable mobility for MassDOT, said she's interested in finding the best ways for a rural area to improve transportation options.
In Berkshire County, that includes better sidewalks, a safer bicycling infrastructure and even, if appropriate, support for Council on Aging shuttle vans.
"Needs are completely different in Berkshire County than in any other part of the state," Sutton said.
The state's relatively new focus on existing streets for bike use has one particular advantage over bike trails. "They take a long time to build," Sutton said of trails.
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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