Will controversial bike lanes be on Pittsfield's November ballot? Not before another City Council vote
A close vote Tuesday had some city councilors thinking they'd passed a petition to allow voters to have their say on removing the North Street bike lanes come November. But city leaders say there's one more vote between that question and the ballot.
As Pittsfield’s bike lane debate heats up, we must be able to hold two thoughts in our head at once. While we agree with the disgruntled that much of the 2020 North Street redesign seems ill-conceived, it would be similarly ill-advised to address it with a rash move like traffic design by referendum.
Like many city residents and irate letter-writers, we find the bike lanes’ placement clunky and counter-intuitive. There’s merit to the argument that it doesn’t exactly make driving to and parking on North Street more appealing, and even regular North Street motorists can have trouble telling where to turn and travel between the trails of confusing markings delineating the single driving lane from the bike lane from the parking area. Business-owners relay their customers’ frustrations and resulting reluctance to visit North Street — never a good sign for a downtown seeking activity and growth.
Still, between the many letters to the editor decrying the new North Street, we’ve also received some letters defending the bike lanes’ implementation as giving cyclists a safer option and making downtown accessible to more than just motor vehicles. To those folks, we would stress that our low opinion of North Street’s current configuration does not result from being reflexively anti-bike lane or resistant to change. In fact, there’s an argument that the sudden rollout and questionable design of this project did a lot of damage to the idea of a modern reimagining of downtown with sensible bike lanes and walkability considerations in the minds of many residents.
And for those perturbed residents, the negative reaction hasn’t mellowed over the last two years. That was obvious at last week’s City Hall meeting, during which At-Large Councilor Karen Kalinowsky petitioned to put a question on November city ballots that would ask Pittsfield voters whether to remove the bike lanes and return North Street to four traffic lanes.
As a guiding principle, we are against government by direct referendum. That principle goes especially for traffic design and should be followed even if one is particularly annoyed by the current state of North Street. We elect people like city councilors to analyze the data and make the best decisions on our behalf, not to lead by polls and surveys. The latter is not only the wrong way to approach improving North Street; it would set a terrible precedent. We wouldn’t want to see questions of where to put stop signs and when to reconstruct individual intersections put to the ballot box with a resulting campaign circus.
There’s nothing undemocratic about that stance. We don’t ask voters without expertise on wastewater management to decide how to maintain the city’s sewer system. That would be silly, unproductive and dangerous — just as it would be to let crucial downtown traffic design decisions go to an up-and-down vote rather than leaving it to elected leaders who have the time and ability to weigh the nuanced options for shaping a critical throughway.
Some will point out that our leaders can err — just look at the unpopular changes on North Street. One poorly conceived project is not nearly reason enough to turn the decision-making process for traffic design on its head. Councilors who voted against handling the matter with a simplistic referendum concurred with those on the other side of the issue that North Street’s redesign needs more thought. There is at least agreement on that.
We also should agree, whatever one’s personal preference, we need better data on factors like actual cyclist ridership on and around North Street. The dataset we’re working with is not exactly rock-solid. Last year’s bike lane report was conducted between mid-2021 and mid-2022 by measuring for a couple hours one day per month, using that limited dataset to extrapolate monthly ridership.
At best, we’re operating on limited data; at worst, some folks dig in on anecdote alone. Those who just want to see North Street revert to its previous form say they never see cyclists; those who like the new bike lanes say they use them all the time and see others doing so. As is often the case, the truth likely is somewhere in between — but we should be clearer on where the truth is regarding cyclist ridership and experience as well as motorist experience in order to build a better, safer, more accessible North Street.
Crunching those numbers could take time, which will irk some who have vocally opposed the redesign for more than two years. But the one thing we should take from the lackluster nature of the redesign is that resetting the the backbone of downtown should not be done rashly, no matter how much one wants progress or the previous status quo.
The people of Pittsfield can still have a say. Instead of a binding ballot measure, perhaps the best way forward would be a nonbinding referendum in November asking city voters whether to prioritize a rethink on North Street. It wouldn’t mandate a traffic design change, an exercise we think would be unwise to take up at the polls, but it would hopefully motivate and unite officials on the need to rethink the redesign.
Councilors are awaiting the city solicitor’s opinion on the referendum petition, after which the council will vote again on the next step forward. Whatever it is, it should not be bypassing traffic engineers and forwarding a question of downtown design directly to voters.
While some want to act first and ask questions later, that would amount to municipal officials abdicating their responsibility to find a wiser way forward on this controversial issue.