MICHAEL DiPASQUALE: Stop treating pedestrians, bicyclists like second-class citizens

  • Northampton Police investigate on New South Street after a bicyclist struck a car in April. The driver was cleared by police of any responsibility for the accident. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/9/2016 9:41:44 AM

 

A recent letter writer would have us believe Northampton pedestrians possess a special kind of death wish. People entering a crosswalk, expecting cars and trucks to stop, are asking to get hit, injured, or worse.

Certainly pedestrians and cyclists need to watch where they’re going. But as satisfying as it may be to curse and complain, the writer misses a larger point. For far too long Americans have allowed cars and traffic to run roughshod over our cities and towns. In the United States, pedestrians, bicyclists and people in wheelchairs are accommodated as afterthoughts, forced to navigate streets engineered primarily to facilitate the movement of automobiles.

It wasn’t always this way. Road construction and street widening projects implemented after World War II transformed cities once filled with streetcars and pedestrians into places that privilege cars. Streets were made wider, straighter and faster. This change, abetted by public policies that encouraged highways and suburban development, soon became the norm. And, with few exceptions, it has defined the development of American cities ever since.

Northampton was spared the wholesale highway construction and poor planning that wrecked many other cities. Main Street is largely intact and continues to attract many pedestrians. Still, for much of the day, the downtown area is crowded with cars.

And sprawling auto dependent development lies just a few blocks away. Like it or not, most of us live in a world designed for, and dominated by the automobile.

Our car culture

In the United State 80 percent of families own two or more cars (almost one car for every living person), and drive them on 4 million miles of roads. In addition to air pollution and climate change, America’s obsession with cars is largely responsible for a physical environment overpowered by parking garages, big box stores, fast food restaurants and sprawling suburbs.

There’s no reason things have to stay this way. In fact, the tide may be turning. Recent trends suggest the time is right for a more inclusive approach to transportation policy and planning that pays as much attention to bicyclists and pedestrians as it does to cars.

Suburban areas are not the draw they once were. People are increasingly attracted to compact urban areas that are walkable and bikeable. We want to live and work in communities that provide a range of transportation options – places where we can access things on foot, and don’t have to deal with traffic or parking. Families looking for places to live are now as likely to check a neighborhood’s “walk score” (a measure of proximity to services that can be accessed on foot) as they are the quality of schools.

Driving less provides many benefits. Fewer cars on the road reduces pollution and decreases traffic congestion for all of us. And as walking and biking become more popular options, residents are more likely to shop and run errands closer to home. That’s good for the local economy.

Not convinced? A recent article in the Atlantic explains the mental and physical benefits of walking, while a recent study by British researchers shows that commuters who stopped driving to work and started walking or riding a bike were under less stress and were able to concentrate better than people that drive.

Northampton has already made strides in supporting pedestrians and bikers. This includes expanding the city’s bike path and sidewalk network and implementing land use policies to promote walkable neighborhoods. It’s a good start. But the relatively small amount of money and resources the city spends on bike and pedestrian safety shows we can (and need) to do more. The sooner the better.

As more people choose to bike and walk, crashes are becoming more common. The Highway Research Center at the University of North Carolina reports that after declining for many years, pedestrian deaths are rising. Why? Because our existing transportation infrastructure still overwhelmingly favors cars. As more people choose to bike and walk they are literally forced to cross paths with roads that were not designed for them.

Alloting dollars

Northampton’s recently approved capital budget includes more than a half million dollars for street resurfacing, but only $25,000 for traffic calming. Add to this $50,000 in funding allocated to sidewalk construction and repair and it’s still a tiny proportion of the total budget that includes among many other things $225,000 for new LED street lights.

If we want things to change, we’re going to have to re-think the way we prioritize and ultimately fund transportation projects. We need to develop smart and equitable approaches to planning for all modes of transportation. It’s time to stop treating bicyclists and pedestrians like second-class citizens.

Where to begin?

Make sure we enforce existing laws for speeding and reckless driving. The city should also study reducing the speed limit in certain areas. The Boston City Council recently proposed dropping that city’s speed limit to 20 mph. Car crashes at lower speeds are less likely to be lethal.

In addition to more funding for traffic calming and bike lanes, the city should reinforce urban design standards that foster pedestrian activity. This could range from the location of parking lots to creating new pedestrian/bike zones that reduce interactions between cars and people.

We need to be creative and redesign intersections using innovative approaches that support all travel modes. The city should employ new technologies to control traffic, but let’s not forget the basics. Get the crosswalks and bike lanes painted. And make sure pedestrian crossings are visible and lighted at night.

What can individuals do? We can drive more slowly, obey traffic laws and everyone can pay more attention to where they are going. We can support policies that provide more funding for pedestrians and bicycle infrastructure. And we can get out of our cars and bike and walk more.

I urge people to get involved: Bay State Bike Week is May 14-22. Join local events to support bicyclists (massbikepv.org). Also, the city is sponsoring two related public events: On May 10 there is a “Main Street Design Workshop”, to re-imagine a more bike/pedestrian friendly downtown. On May 18, a public forum takes place to discuss the city’s new Walk/Bike plan.

Michael DiPasquale is an extension assistant professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of the UMass Design Center in Springfield. He serves on Northampton’s Bicycle and Pedestrian subcommittee.

 

 




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