Guest columnist Joel Russell: Support the Main Street redevelopment plan

  • Main Street in Northampton FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/6/2023 4:49:00 PM

Congratulations are due to Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, Carolyn Misch, director of the Office of Planning and Sustainability, and other public officials for their steadfast support of the approved Main Street redesign. The project has stirred opposition from those who apparently weren’t paying attention and failed to participate in a very open, lengthy, and thorough public process. That process was facilitated by an excellent consultant from Toole Design, which has a proven track record of expertise in urban design and sustainable downtown development.

Those who paid attention to this elaborate public process learned that good planning sometimes involves accepting counterintuitive notions based on an in-depth examination of the data and a study of the experience of other cities. For example, the knee-jerk reaction to reducing traffic lanes from four to three is to assume that this will increase traffic congestion and road capacity. However, as the consultants demonstrated convincingly in numerous meetings, that assumption is simply false.

Those cities that have had the courage to narrow their Main streets while adding pedestrian amenities have benefited handsomely from booming downtowns that are regionally attractive and business friendly. Focusing on the pedestrian experience by widening sidewalks and adding numerous shade trees and other vegetation will make the new Northampton, with its wonderful variety of cafes, outdoor displays, and public art, the most memorable downtown in the region. It will become the place where everyone wants to be.

It is well-accepted that reducing the number and width of travel lanes slows traffic, and slow speeds are the key to improved safety. Perhaps surprisingly, slow speeds also increase the capacity of the street to handle more vehicles. Think about it. When cars are going 40 mph, there must be greater distance between each vehicle, and this necessary gap between speeding vehicles reduces the number of vehicles that can actually pass through a given stretch of road.

The city’s consultants made this case convincingly to anyone who was listening. Fast-moving vehicles are also instruments of death to any pedestrian or bicyclist they hit and, at such speeds it is also much more difficult for both the driver and the pedestrian to avoid a crash. Thus, the narrowing and reduction of travel lanes both slows traffic and leads to increased safety and road capacity. I can’t think of any lively, memorable downtown that has four lanes of speeding traffic whizzing through it. Can you?

I don’t understand why some people are so concerned about the danger bicycles pose to pedestrians, when it is clear that crashes with cars and trucks are much more common and deadly. The concern that speeding bikes could pose a danger to pedestrians was considered during the extensive public process, and measures can be taken to ensure that bicycle speeds are slow enough to protect pedestrians. If it turns out that the bike lanes are as dangerous as some fear (highly unlikely), they can be replaced with wider sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities.

As to the concerns about reduced on-street parking, I can’t think of any successful downtown that doesn’t have a perceived parking problem. A city that doesn’t have a perceived parking problem usually has a serious economic problem. There are lots of examples of struggling downtowns that have plenty of parking but not much else: Hartford, Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke come to mind. The proposed Main Street plan substitutes smart parking management for quantity of parking spaces, a strategy that has shown remarkable success where it has been tried, as explained in detail throughout the Picture Main Street process.

I applaud the city for sticking to its well-vetted and thoughtfully considered plan to transform Main Street. Let’s not let fear and ignorance sabotage a great plan for Northampton’s future, a plan that has been approved and that our city leaders are wisely promoting.

Joel Russell has lived in Northampton since 1996 and is a land conservation lawyer and professional city planning consultant.


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