Bike lane markings on street (copy)

A bike lane is seen in downtown Pittsfield, part of a North Street redesign that was first launched in late 2020. Eagle columnist Mitchell Chapman argues that motorists concerned with downtown safety and disruption should compare the motor vehicle accident data before and after the redesign.

PITTSFIELD — There’s been a lot of talk about Pittsfield’s bike lanes on North Street, particularly from disgruntled motorists unhappy about the changing traffic patterns, long lines at red lights and safety concerns. In fact, there is a popular change.org petition demanding that the bike lanes be removed and for the street to be changed back to having two lanes of traffic.

“There is video of backed up traffic, blocked ambulances, bicycles on the sidewalk,” it reads. “Let’s fix this before someone gets hurt.”

The Eagle recently reported that At-Large City Councilor Karen Kalinowsky plans to submit a petition to the mayor and City Council requesting that the street be changed back. Concerns for safety are also common among letters to the editor about this subject. But is the street’s current configuration more dangerous than its previous iteration, and are more lanes of traffic through downtown Pittsfield really the answer going forward?

Public data collected by the Pittsfield Police Department might shed some light, as it includes yearly data of all motor vehicle accidents in the city by street. It’s important to note that this can at best show correlation between the city’s Shared Streets & Spaces Initiative’s transformation of North Street and the number of accidents that have happened, and not a direct causal relationship. There are several other variables that can account for the changes in numbers of accidents: People have been making fewer trips to the office and fewer trips in general amid the pandemic; the bikes lanes in question only account for a part of North Street; the PPD data does not specify where on-the-street accidents occurred.

The bike lanes were added in October 2020, and in the 15 months of data between then and December 2021, there were 86 motor vehicles accidents reported on North Street — 66 in 2021. From January-September 2020, there were 39 reported accidents, with an additional 20 reported between October and December. This compares to 95 in 2019, 104 in 2018, 106 in 2017, 86 in 2016, 89 in 2015 and 110 in 2014. Between 2014 and 2019, North Street averaged about 98 motor vehicle accidents per year.

It’s important to note that these figures also include incidents where North Street was an intersecting street. When those are removed, the accident totals are 53 in 2021, 17 between October and December 2020, 30 between January and September 2020, 81 in 2019, 88 in 2018, 90 in 2017, 75 in 2016, 75 in 2015 and 99 in 2014, with the average yearly number of motor vehicle accidents on the street between 2014 and 2019 being about 85.

While this does not definitively prove that the elimination of one lane of traffic on North Street made the streets safer, it does show a steep decrease in accidents since its implementation. This could be because the congestion caused by the current design forces vehicles to move at slower speeds, or it could be indicative of changed driving habits since the pandemic began that have nothing to do with the redesigned street. Either way, we should have a clearer picture of its impact once the initiative’s study period is over.

Motorists’ concerns should be heard, but their wishes should not be granted at the expense of pedestrians and bikers, and North Street’s future must be driven by data.

So far, in terms of safety, keeping North Street one lane seems promising, despite how unpopular it is among motorists. What remains to be seen is if it will translate into an increase in foot traffic that will benefit the local businesses that line downtown in a concrete way. It may never be accident-free, but controlling automobile speeds through congestion can make it safer even if it inconveniences motorists.

North Street represents an important choice. The city can remain car-centric and risk creating the sort of space that Williams College graduate and city planner Jeff Speck refers to as “easy to get to but not worth arriving at” in terms of walkability. Alternatively, the city can continue its experiment with making the road multi-use.

I think it’s natural for motorists to react the way they have to North Street’s current configuration. Changes like this can be disruptive, uncomfortable and frustrating. But they also have the potential to make the city a better place to live, and it’s important to not lose sight of that.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and columnist.