Guest columnist Lilly Lombard: Parking and the fear of change

  • mactrunk

  • A cyclist makes her way down Main Street in Northampton on July 20. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 8/21/2023 4:33:51 PM
Modified: 8/21/2023 4:33:40 PM

An end run is afoot to overturn the public’s will regarding the future of Northampton’s Main Street. During the exhaustive, transparent public process for the redesign of Main Street, I was part of a large and active citizen-business collaboration — Main St. For Everyone — that formed to advocate for expert data, not merely loud voices, to guide this once-in-a-century project.

Over a thousand Northampton residents, 55 downtown businesses, and numerous public officials (including the current mayor and five of the current city councilors) agreed with our approach and affirmed that data-driven safety improvements and a resilient urban design, in a rapidly changing climate and economy, would improve, not harm, Northampton’s vitality.

Perhaps you were one of the 1,239 Northampton residents who signed our petition. By contrast, anti-change activists secured barely 400 petition signatures.

I am pleased that, through years-long active engagement, and by bringing forward important peer-reviewed studies, Main Street for Everyone helped the city improve and fine-tune safety features of the design, increasing public space for trees, walking, bicycling, gathering, and vending; and reducing unsafe and unnecessary street parking. Displeased with these results, some now falsely claim that the public process was flawed.

Why reduced street parking, especially angle parking, continues to call some folks to arms baffles me. Jason Schrieber, senior principal at Stantec, a globally respected urban design firm, explained during a 2021 public forum on parking management that the city could add or remove 100 parking spots in downtown and it would have no impact.

What most affects access is parking management, not parking supply. That is why recent changes (shifting parking meter rates and hours) have already brought parking improvements. Did this expert testimony or new body of evidence soften the position of the Main Street redesign opponents? They appear to have doubled down.

What’s more, a scientist at UMass analyzed crash rates in downtown Northampton and determined that angled parking is associated with 37% more crashes per day than parallel parking. In fact, the commonwealth now prohibits creation of angle parking on state-owned roads because of the documented dangers. Did this move the dial for the reactionaries? Again, not one bit.

Fear around parking changes is not grounded in safety, nor in what keeps American downtowns economically vibrant, nor even in parking needs in Northampton. It is essentially fear of change.

Thankfully, debate over this design project has bounds. The project is now in the hands of the state Department of Transportation. It held its legally required public hearing and closed its comment period this spring. Soon, I trust, this state agency — protectors of public interest, safety, and our tax dollars — will approve Northampton’s evidence-based design. The great majority of us can’t wait for the change.

Lilly Lombard lives in Northampton.


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