Guest columnist Rob Weir: Sacrifices on menu for Main Street

  • Main Street in Northampton near Michelson Galleries and CVS. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/1/2023 6:55:37 PM
Modified: 9/1/2023 6:55:03 PM

Given the religious-like zeal for and against Northampton’s Main Street redesign, call me the resident agnostic. It thrills my utopian soul to imagine no cars downtown. But so does a pedestrians-only zone and light rail connecting Northampton to Amherst.

It has been called a “once in a generation” opportunity, but I have unresolved doubts. I’d like to be wrong, but I foresee reduced-lane gridlock. (One breakdown or double-parker would do it!) If Northampton grows, there will more cars on Main Street, not fewer.

I’m guilty of using the ”Noho” appellation, but our infrastructure doesn’t qualify us to be New York City’s sixth borough. Having grown up in a place the size of Northampton with no public transport, I’m grateful for taxis and the PVTA . But let’s not pretend there are fleets of crosstown buses, that everyone can afford an Uber, or that we have flexible bisecting streets analogous even to Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont.

I’m troubled by the implications of defending the design because 30% of residents live within a mile of downtown and 54% live within four miles. This has the effect of saying that the physically challenged, Florence and Leeds don’t matter. I occasionally do walk four miles into town — for exercise, not bag-lugging. Plus, to walk or use the PVTA, I must drive in order to do so safely.

Older residents become more car-reliant. What about seniors?

There’s too much cherry-picked data. Ongoing opinion polling since 2020 supposedly indicates that nearly 1,600 individuals favor redesign by a 3-1 margin. Such polling represents just 16% of the city’s 9,816 voters, and many of those on record are not registered in Northampton. Would it  pass a general vote?

I’m among early enthusiasts rethinking this particular plan. Would it pass a general vote?

Another “truth lite” statistic defends removing some angled parking because the practice is involved in more accidents than parallel parking. In part, that’s because fewer drivers attempt the latter. Nearly half of motorists are so fearful of trying that it has its own term: parallelophobia. Worse, several polls suggest that fewer than a third of drivers are competent at the skill. For a glimpse of what could happen on Main, sit on quiet Gothic Street and observe drivers struggling to parallel park.

Would it be safer to ban bikes from the dangers of downtown traffic? If those reliant on cars must walk, why not cyclists? There’s a very expensive rail trail I quite enjoy that circles within a short block of downtown in numerous places. Path entrances are accessible from West Street, Earle, Elm, Conz, King, Pleasant and Market. Build more racks in the spirit of if you can bike, you can walk.

I’ve heard it said that the only thing worse than a Massachusetts driver is a Northampton cyclist. Observe them blowing through the lights at South and State streets, zipping across lanes, and scattering pedestrians. We could follow Madison, Wisconsin’s lead: require licenses for bikers, limit them to designated lanes, and hire pedaling police to ticket violators (including jaywalkers), but I doubt that’s in the offing.

Pedestrian safety should get higher priority given that accidents involving them outnumber cycling mishaps by a 2-1 ratio. So, yes to speed bumps, enhanced patrols, and painted lines and signs that clearly designate lanes.

How about automatic bollards that activate at traffic lights and crosswalks? They would also prevent westbound cars from ignoring walk lights on the east side of South Street and motorists illegally going straight across it heading west. Bollards are common throughout Europe and cost less than $1,500 to install.

No design will please everyone, but I wonder if the current plan is out of step with current generational needs. Right now vehicles, bikes and walkers must coexist. Each will need to sacrifice.

Rob Weir of Florence is a retired UMass history professor.


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