Mitchell Chapman: We need a walkable Pittsfield

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PITTSFIELD — In 2015, renown city planner and lecturer Jeff Speck visited the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to give a talk based on his book, "Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time," which was required reading for freshmen that year. Being a sophomore, I didn't read his book and I paid little attention to his talk.

Years later, I've picked his book up, and it offers crucial insights into how Berkshire County, specifically Pittsfield, can and should make its streets walkable, which will change its public transit and quality of life for the better.

I've written often about riding Berkshire Regional Transit Authority buses, being a former car-less commuter and current Pittsfield resident who relies on the bus to do basic tasks like go to the grocery or department store — but I've failed to talk about a key piece of Pittsfield's transit system: Its foot traffic.

Pittsfield's pedestrian perils are well documented and are a popular topic of discussion among Eagle letter writers and columnists. In fact, Eagle columnist and advisory board member Don Morrison recently talked about it in his Sept. 13 column, appropriately titled "Slow down, you're goin' too fast."

"Our intersections have become deathtraps," he wrote. "Two people were killed at the same one in a single month this summer in Richmond. As for those crosswalks where it's mandatory to stop for pedestrians, barely a week goes by without a casualty."

This summer, The Eagle published an editorial that further explored this issue, titled "Pedestrians lose conflicts with cars," which was in response to the fact that the city experienced a 75 percent increase in pedestrians hit by cars.

"Pedestrians routinely walk into crosswalks, often with heads down, in the apparent assumption that they automatically have the right of way," it reads. "That is not the case if there is a traffic light at the intersection and an electronic red hand is telling pedestrians that they should stay put. ... Pedestrians must take it upon themselves to know and follow the crosswalk rules. It's their lives and health that are at stake."

DESIGNED FOR DANGER

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What is missing from the conversation about our dangerous streets, and something Speck covers extensively in his book, is why our pedestrians are put into dangerous situations with cars from a city planning perspective. The short answer: Our streets are designed to do so.

In 2016, the nonprofit walkBoston conducted a Downtown Walk Assessment that outlined walkability issues with Pittsfield's North Street and its connecting streets that, in my opinion, are indicative of walkability problems present throughout the city. They include the fact that our city sidewalks vary in condition; our crosswalks differ in condition and style, with some being faded and "nearly undetectable"; high automobile speeds incurred by wide roads; traffic signals that put pedestrians in conflict with turning vehicles; and the fact that we don't have nearly enough crosswalks and sidewalks in places we ought to, leading pedestrians to take the "path of least resistance, crossing roads where there are no crosswalks, and walking along roads where there are no sidewalks."

Streets are built environments and as such, are completely within our control to change. Successful streets, as Speck notes, are designed to be mixed use between pedestrians, bicycles and cars — and when we look at the Berkshires' most interesting and most successful streets (mostly found in our downtowns), they accommodate all three forms of traffic. Our most dangerous streets tend to be car-centric through a lack of balanced traffic flow, little to no bike lanes, nonexistent sidewalks, and are burdened by too many car lanes that make them a hassle for pedestrians to cross safely.

Foot traffic is more important than the majority of the county's street design gives it credit for, as when we make our cities walkable, we allow our citizens to not only live healthier by giving them the options of biking to or walking to places like work and the grocery store on a regular basis — while saving thousands of dollars a year by doing so — but they also make our streets safer and our cities and towns more energy efficient and less wasteful by cutting out unnecessary automobile trips. There is also major economic gain to be had by making our cities and towns car-optional rather than car-dependent. Portland, Ore. serves as a great example, as its 650,000 citizens have saved $1.1 billion each year as a result of its Skinny Streets and ambitious bike share program, savings that Speck notes, have been spent mostly locally.

LOOSEN CAR STRANGLEHOLD

And this doesn't even mention what an eyesore car-centric cities and towns are, being what Speck describes as places easy to drive to but not worth arriving at. According to Speck, successful streets need to be safe, useful, comfortable and interesting, and all four functions work together to make our streets places people want to be, which henceforth creates an environment for economic and population growth, two things the Berkshires desperately need.

There is a clear answer to making our streets safer, and it is smart town and city design that improves pedestrian walkability and allows us to make our streets more comfortable and interesting by loosening the stranglehold cars have on the way our cities and towns are built. Pittsfield has a Walk Score of 38, which is considered poor and puts it in the bottom third of Massachusetts cities, and can be greatly improved by something as simple as creating more bike lanes (it must be said that while not everywhere in the county can be walkable, especially in the hilltowns, we can certainly make an effort to make them more bikeable).

Walkability is a conversation that has been long overdue in our cities and towns, and Speck has some great insights as to how to do it. If you're a member of local or state government or are interested in changing our transit for the better, I consider his book a must read.

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


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