Guest columnist John P. DiBartolo Jr.: Main Street redesign — A trial run for safety

By JOHN P. DIBARTOLO JR. 

Published: 08-30-2023 11:30 AM

Among the reasons given for the proposed redesign of Main Street is that it will afford greater safety to pedestrians and cyclists. If this is true, we should not wait for federal funding and a three-year construction period, we should institute the changes immediately by way of a trial run. I have read that city officials are resistant to doing a trial run. My concern is that without a trial run the permanent redesign would result in reduced safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

It is important to note that there are changes that should be made to improve safety for pedestrians, changes that have been recommended in studies prior to the current proposed redesign. Changes such as: shortening crosswalks with curb bump-outs, adding additional signage and pedestrian crossing lights, raising crosswalks to be speed humps, and painting lines designating traffic lanes and warnings of the raised crosswalks. Those measures should have already been implemented … but they have not.

My safety concerns with the proposed redesign relate to the position of the designated bike lanes. The current plan puts the bike lanes adjacent to the sidewalk rather than adjacent to the vehicle travel lane. The bike lane would be behind a row of parked cars. This position creates new safety hazards. It puts cyclists at risk from vehicles taking right turns. Cyclists would be obscured from the view of drivers coming from behind over their right shoulders at potentially higher speed than cars in heavy traffic conditions. Cyclists would be at risk from vehicles entering side streets that need to pull past the curb line for drivers to see oncoming traffic. Cyclists would be at risk from passenger side doors opening in sections with parallel parking (passengers, often minors, are less likely than drivers to check the sideview mirror). Lastly, pedestrians (particularly small children and the elderly) would be at risk when they step off the curb to get to a parked car.

It is important to note that the city has offered the design used in Concord, New Hampshire to substantiate the effectiveness and safety of its model. However, the Concord model does not have bike lanes behind a row of parked cars adjacent to the sidewalk. The Concord model has bike lanes adjacent to vehicle travel lanes like we now have on King Street and Pleasant Street. See bit.ly/44mPpmV

I am not a city planner. I am a personal injury lawyer, but I have represented more than 1,000 people injured in motor vehicle collisions in my 27 years of practice in Northampton. Based on my experience the cause of collisions is almost always driver inattention and the failure to perceive the surroundings. I think that hiding the bike lane in this manner will exacerbate rather than protect against these problems.

Maybe I am wrong, maybe the design is safe, but there are only two ways to find out: a permanent multimillion dollar way, or a trial run.

If we do a trial run and the situation proves dangerous, it can be tweaked or modified for safety. If the design causes other problems for safety (like increased traffic on side streets), alterations could be considered. However, if we wait until we make a permanent change it will be much more difficult and expensive to remedy.

If I am wrong and a trial run is successful, then the design’s benefits should be self-evident. Making it permanent would be something to which the public could look forward and possibly make everyone more patient through the inconvenience of a long construction process.

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I am not asking the city to do a trial run of some alternate proposal, I am asking it to a trial run of its own proposal. The cost of setting up a trial run would be a relatively small investment to make sure we get the big investment right. If the redesign is really safer, why not try it now?

John P. DiBartolo Jr. is a Florence resident with law offices in Northampton and Easthampton. 

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