Guest columnist Eric Winkler: Main Street redo a win for climate

Main Street in Northampton

Main Street in Northampton FILE PHOTO

By ERIC WINKLER

Published: 11-06-2023 9:28 PM

The redesign of Main Street in Northampton represents a great advance toward the city’s goals for sustainability, resilience, and responsiveness to the climate crisis. As the Northampton Energy and Sustainability Commission, we want to explain why we strongly support the plan for Main Street. It will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the impacts of stormwater, and provide a cooler downtown as summers get hotter. It will improve accessibility of downtown for people of different abilities and mobility, and also will improve business prosperity downtown.

The commission’s job is to advise the city about decisions relating to sustainability. We assisted in developing the city’s Climate Resilience and Regeneration Plan, which guides the city in pursuing its climate goals. The members of the commission are city employees, city councilors and community members collectively representing many years of experience and knowledge in city operations and sustainability issues.

A Main Street that encourages and enables people to safely travel on foot, by bike and by bus can rapidly and significantly reduce emissions. Currently, Northampton’s Main Street is not safe for cyclists. In cities around the world and all over the U.S., wherever safe biking facilities are provided, the numbers of people who chose to bike escalate exponentially.

By shortening the crosswalks, widening the sidewalks, and making the street a lively, pleasant and interesting place to be, more people will choose to walk or arrive by public transit, reducing the impact of vehicle emissions and direct pollution. The new design provides people with choices in how to travel to and through downtown. Travel by any mode other than the automobile will always be better for the planet.

While it may seem counterintuitive to some, reducing the number of lanes will not reduce total vehicle throughput. In fact, by adding a dedicated turning lane, traffic flow will be improved. This also improves safety for pedestrians by reducing the crossing distance where they are exposed, while also slowing traffic and minimizing driver confusion.

Ironically, by slowing traffic speeds, more vehicles can pass through the street in a given amount of time due to shorter following distances. Emissions from idling in traffic and cruising for parking also will be reduced.

Although some on-street parking spaces will be removed, parking availability will actually be improved because of dynamic parking management. This means that a driver who really needs to park on Main Street will actually be more likely to find an open parking spot despite there being fewer total spaces on the street.

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The redesigned Main Street will be more accessible to everyone. Sidewalks will be upgraded so that two people in wheelchairs can pass each other on all segments of the sidewalk and street furniture will not impede walkers with canes or vision impairments. The bus stops will be easy to navigate for people with various mobility challenges. There will be more accessible parking spots, and they will be designed so that a person in a wheelchair does not have to roll out into traffic to find a curb ramp up to the sidewalk, including those unloading from vans with lifts.

While some worry that reduced on-street parking will threaten businesses, the opposite is actually true. In nearly every business district where bicycle and pedestrian facilities have been improved and parking has been reduced, the businesses have seen improved revenue and customer numbers. In a 2021 study that looked at 45 cases in 16 North American cities, business improved in 55% of cases, stayed unchanged in 30%, and even for the remaining 15% where business impacts were negative, the difference was too small to be statistically significant.

By allocating more of the streetscape to trees, the Main Street plan will make Northampton more resilient as the number of extremely hot days increases. Trees cool the street by providing shade, and by adding moisture to the air around them, actually reducing the air temperature nearby. Heat is the biggest weather-related cause of death, so, especially for those who spend a lot of time outdoors on Main Street, the new urban forest will literally be a lifesaver.

Rainfall is likely to increase in frequency and intensity over time. Tree canopies on the street capture a large portion of the rainfall and direct that water to their root zone. They reduce a significant part of stormwater that would otherwise pour down the street. The new street design includes large root zone areas under the street and sidewalks to allow the trees to grow large and remain healthy.

As a city commission, we meet monthly with a publicly announced agenda and regular public attendance. Over the past several years, Main Street has been a regular item on our agenda, with public testimony, updates from the design contractor, presentations by commission members, and comments from the public. Anyone can find the topic on the published agendas and minutes. Because of COVID, most meetings were accessible on Zoom, and can be found on the Northampton Open Media YouTube channel.

After much consultation and a public process, we agree that the current plan for Main Street, with rationalized car travel lanes and signalization, safe separated bike lanes, accessible and wide sidewalks, ample space for street trees, smart parking management, accessible bus stops, and increased space for civic life is a critical development in preparing our community for the coming century.

Eric Winkler of Florence wrote this on behalf of the Northampton Energy and Sustainability Commission.