PITTSFIELD — A popular subject of discussion among Eagle letter writers has been the installation of bike lanes on Pittsfield’s North Street, which has forced one lane of traffic on each side of the road, which used to be a hazardous two. And it makes sense; drivers hate to be inconvenienced, and are vocal about it.
Areas of concern range from confusion about the flow of traffic when the street merges from one lane to two lanes — a consequence of focusing on only one part of the long road that is both North and South streets — to where the money is coming from, to why we need dedicated bike lanes — a common sentiment is: Are there really enough bikers to warrant this?
In short, it’s not about bikers, and it’s not about drivers. It’s about pedestrians, specifically keeping them safe, and making North Street a place they want to flock to. Renown City Planner and Williams College graduate Jeff Speck’s book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time”, which I’ve cited in previous columns, does a great job of explaining why cities often opt for less lanes of traffic, specifically in the context of projects like the state’s Shared Streets & Spaces initiative. In short, the more lanes of traffic you have, the more incentive drivers have to speed. When you remove lanes of traffic, it forces cars to slow down, in theory making it safer for everyone, even if it inconveniences drivers.
“Big-block, multilane systems result in streets that are both harder to cross and easier to speed on. Here, the most significant threshold is between one lane and two lanes in any given direction, since that second lane offers the opportunity to pass and thus allows drivers to slip into a ‘road racer’ frame of mind,” Speck writes.
Beyond safety, the city also wants to make North Street an interesting place people will want to spend their time, and multilane roads are ugly and noisy, and when you take away lanes of road, it allows the city to use that space for something else, like bikes paths and outdoor dining. Some cities have even replaced lanes of road with more green space, in some cases repurposing entire swathes of road into public parks. But, as Speck notes, for most streets to be successful, they need to have carefully-balanced mixed-uses, as adding bike lanes without protecting sidewalks “is just sacrificing one form of nonmotorized transportation for another.”
“What makes a sidewalk safe is not its width, but whether it is protected by a line of parked cars that form a barrier of steel between the pedestrian and the roadway,” Speck notes. “Have you ever tried sidewalk dining on a sidewalk without curbside parking? Those sorry little table installations rarely last long. Whether they are two feet away or ten feet away, nobody wants to sit — or walk — directly against a line of cars traveling at sixty feet per second.”
He also notes that pedestrian-only areas often fail, with the exception of large metropolitan regions that have high pedestrian densities.
“You aren’t New York, where pedestrian congestion can actually make it almost impossible to walk south along Seventh Avenue near Penn Station at 9:00 a.m..” he writes. “Unless you have similar residential and pedestrian density and stores that can thrive in the absence of car traffic — a rarity — to consign a commercial area to pedestrians only, in America, is to condemn it to death.”
Having a lively downtown people want to spend time in can also have a huge impact in retaining residents and their employers, as especially younger, creative-class workers crave a social scene where chance encounters can lead to friendships, and it’s hard to convince employers to remain in an area where workers don’t want to stay. Pittsfield is fortunate to have attracted a sizable amount of new residents during the pandemic who fled larger cities and bought homes here, and it now has the challenge of retaining them.
Pittsfield’s Shared Streets & Spaces project on North Street has a lot of promise, and I think its potential for greater safety, pedestrian culture and economic growth far outweighs its inconvenience to drivers, though it is worth noting that mixing the uses of one road — even if it is the city’s “main street” — can only do so much. If anything, it’s an experiment that can prove or disprove that these sorts of projects are worth pursuing in Pittsfield.
Maybe it will lead to increased safety and more pedestrians who will spend their time and money on the myriad of businesses that make North Street their home. Maybe none of those things will happen, and the street’s previous configuration was what’s best for the city. Either way, it deserves a fighting chance, because the possibility for a better downtown is worth pursuing.