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Could ‘complete streets’ make Great Barrington more user-friendly?

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation defines a complete street as "one that provides safe and accessible options for all travel modes - walking, biking, transit and vehicles – for people of all ages and abilities."

Great Barrington — How does one make a town’s streets more accessible to everyone? That’s one of the questions being examined by town officials as they eye possible state grants designed to make getting around Great Barrington more user-friendly.

The application is in the early stages but the town could be eligible for up to $400,000 in funding from the state Department of Transportation’s Complete Streets Funding Program.

Town planner Chris Rembold told The Edge that, in June 2017, the Great Barrington Selectboard adopted a policy on implementing the complete streets approach that essentially says, “Whenever we look at a road, how can we make it more user friendly?” In addition, Rembold said the complete streets concept is consistent with the town’s award-winning 2013 master plan.

Click here to read the policy. In addition, a town working group has been formed and is getting technical assistance from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. The working group includes Rembold, Jeremy Higa of the planning board, Department of Public Works Superintendent Sean VanDeusen and Council on Aging director Polly Mann Salenovich.

“We want to make sure we serve our aging population,” said Great Barrington Selectman Ed Abrahams.

MassDOT defines a complete street as “one that provides safe and accessible options for all travel modes — walking, biking, transit and vehicles – for people of all ages and abilities.”

Some of Great Barrington’s streets are already classified as complete streets. The recent $6 million Main Street reconstruction project qualifies, Rembold said, because it is MassDOT policy to build roads that adhere to complete-street standards. That portion of Main Street now has bike lanes and better-marked crosswalk with bump-outs, for example.

In order to find out which streets town residents and workers believe are in  need of improvement and how, the town has posted an online survey on SurveyMonkey. Click here to view the survey. Respondents are not limited to residents of the town; anyone who spends time in Great Barrington as a worker or visitor is welcome to complete the survey.

A cyclist opts for walking his bike on a Main Street sidewalk rather than using the bike lane in the street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“It’s really for anybody who uses our transportation network, or is maybe working or visiting in town,” Rembold explained.

Abrahams is the selectboard’s complete-streets liaison. He has circulated the survey out onto social media. Rembold said that, when the survey went live last week, it got 150 responses on the first day. The survey will close April 6.

“I think this is very exciting,” Abrahams said in an interview. “At this point, we’re really getting an idea of what people think is important.”

The survey asks respondents which neighborhoods they’re most familiar with and then poses series of questions about safety, cycling, accessibility, walkability and public transportation. In addition to the aforementioned criteria, “complete streets improvements can range from a bicycle rack at a public building, to replacing broken sidewalks to fixing dangerous intersections or widening roadways to better accommodate bicycles,” the survey states.

“Right now we are gathering input, and plan to issue a plan in a few months,” Rembold explained. “A public hearing will be held, and there will be a map that will show where we can make improvements.”

Abrahams said some areas of town that are bound to get a lot of attention in the survey are South Main Street from the Claire Teague Senior Center to the Big Y shopping center.

The crosswalk on South Main Street in Great Barrington in the vicinity of East Mountain Medical Center where a man was struck while trying to cross Route 7 on his motorized scooter in September 2015. Photo: Heather Bellow

The sidewalks from the senior center stretching north are paved but stop at the intersection with Reed Street and the Lazan Glover & Puciloski law firm. Sidewalks resume on the other side of the Route 7 but pedestrians must use a dangerous crosswalk that has been the scene of a couple fatalities in recent years, Abrahams said.

North Plain Road is also a concern. Pedestrians walk on the road to cross under the railroad overpass on Route 41 – a dangerous situation, considering that space is very limited there and visibility is obstructed by the curves and stone abutments. In addition, sidewalks resume on the other side of the underpass but drop out about half a mile north, leaving a large gap for pedestrians all the way to Division Street.

More than 200 Massachusetts municipalities have registered for the program with MassDOT and 152, including Great Barrington, have had their policies approved. Five actual projects have been approved in Berkshire County, including those in Lenox, Egremont and Sandisfield. To see the handy interactive map, click here or view the static image below:

“We might come with 20 to 30 recommendations, then we cost those out and try to prioritize them,” Rembold said. “Then we can apply to DOT to do the work.” The grant award will likely be somewhere between $200,000 and $400,000, Rembold added.

Eammon Coughlin, a senior planner at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, is providing technical assistance to Great Barrington in its quest for a complete-streets grant.

The Dero bicycle repair station in front of Great Barrington Town Hall is a perfect example of a complete-streets feature. Photo: David Scribner

“We’ve had pretty good success with the program,” Coughlin said in an interview. “I think this is the 10th or 11th project we are working on.”

Coughlin said around $2 million in grants have been awarded from the program in Berkshire County. Every town in the county that has completed the process has received some funding.

Most awards involve repairing sidewalks. But since Egremont and Sandisfield don’t have extensive networks of sidewalks, for example, those towns applied for traffic-calming measures such as dynamic speed signs. Bike racks and repair stations, such as the one in front of Great Barrington Town Hall, are also part of the program.

“The program wants to encourage cycling,” Coughlin said.

A bike lane–a complete streets feature–was part of the $6 million Main Street reconstruction project. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Coughlin said the complete streets program was tucked inside a transportation bill on Beacon Hill a few years ago. He is hopeful that state lawmakers looking to save money don’t try to cut the program.

“It’s still going strong, and we still have funding for this year,” Coughlin said, adding with a note of caution that, “were hoping it’ll be around for awhile because these programs can come and go.”

Like Rembold, Abrahams was delighted that MassDOT had complete streets in mind when the department and its general contractor, J.H. Maximilian, executed the plan for the Main Street reconstruction project. Click here to see how recent state transportation projects in Berkshire County contain elements of complete streets. Scroll down to page 12 to see the issues addressed in Great Barrington’s Main Street reconstruction project.

“To me, the most exciting part of this is MassDOT is no longer looking at roads solely as a means of getting vehicles from one place to another,” Abrahams said.

No one agrees with Abrahams more than part-time Great Barrington resident John Massengale, an architect, urban designer and writer. Massengale is co-author, with Victor Dover of Street Design, of “The Secret of Great Cities and Towns.”

See video video below of Massengale and Dover discussing the catalyst behind writing “The Secret of Great Cities and Towns,” which is described as “a comprehensive memoir of streets”:

Massengale is a longtime critic of the Main Street reconstruction project and has written an extensive analysis of it entitled “Occupy Main Street,” Click here to read it.

Massengale is also a student of transportation history and noted that thinking in this area of study has been long been in a backwards mode. The prevailing philosophy since the production of the Model T began in 1908, he said, was “that pedestrians were a problem for cars.”

John Massengale

“That was a real turning point,” Massengale said in an interview. “The car companies realized they could sell a lot of cars but the cars would need to drive around easily, so they became unfriendly to pedestrians. Car companies and oil companies invented the term ‘jaywalking’ … they invented traffic engineering and they started the first school of traffic engineering.”

But he added that new trends for managing vehicular and pedestrian traffic are emerging. It’s called “shared space” and it’s pretty much like it sounds: “It’s where cars go so slowly that everyone shares the space.”

As defined by the Project for Public Spaces, shared space is: “… a street space where all traffic control devices such as signals and stop signs, all markings such as crosswalks, and all signing have been removed. Curbing is removed to blur the lines between sidewalks and motorized travel way. The philosophy is that absence of all of those features forces all users of the space — from pedestrians to drivers — to negotiate passage through the space via eye contact and person to person negotiation.”

Conceived by Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, shared space sort of sounds like chaos. But Massengale says it has been tried in some European cities and it has worked. Indeed, Massengale thinks it would work well as a complete street concept.

In 1960s Amsterdam, for example, children were getting run over in the streets with alarming frequency. Eventually the city implemented shared spaces on many of its busier streets and the death rate dropped significantly.

“It took them decades to realize that, when you take everything away, people actually go slower,” Massengale said.

Sidewalk repairs are an important part of the complete streets program, though these on Railroad Street will be replaced through a different program. Photo: Terry Cowgill

He said the Hill neighborhood is an example of an “informal shared space” because somes streets have sidewalks and some don’t. That partiality could explain why some residents complain that motorists still speed through the neighborhood.

A better example of a shared space, Massengale said, is a parking lot. There are few rules in parking lots. There are few, if any, crosswalks, and motorists are extra careful because they know the unexpected could happen at any moment.

“Nobody goes speeding through a parking lot, so it’s exactly the same idea,” Massengale said.”You don’t know when someone’s going to be backing up … you’re wary and on the alert, so you drive slowly. This is what traffic engineers have discovered.”

Massengale acknowledges that, under shared spaces conditions, it would take longer to get from Point A to Point Z in a vehicle. But death rates would surely be reduced not only for pedestrians, but for motorists, as well.

Of course, few towns could do this unilaterally since most have state highways running through them. But Massengale sees the concept of slowing down catching on in Europe.

An organization called 20’s Plenty for Us has sprung up in the United Kingdom, where the group is lobbying for a default speed limit of 20 miles per hour for streets in densely populated areas. The organization has claimed great success. Fully 80 percent of the streets in Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, will have 20 mph speed limits within three years.

The speed limit on Main Street in Great Barrington, from South Street to Cottage Street is 25 mph. But many motorists exceed the limit and pedestrian accidents still happen.

Rembold said there will likely be a public forum in May to update the public on the progress of the program. Meanwhile, keep those ideas coming and complete the survey if you haven’t already.


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