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Q: I hear this project will reduce the overall number of parking spots downtown by about 57. It feels like it’s already hard to find a spot.
A: Over the years, we have commissioned several studies to look at our parking downtown, and all have agreed that the plan includes sufficient parking for downtown. The parking garage (with a bridge leading right into Thornes Market in the heart of downtown) always has spaces available, and the first hour is free. Numbers show that about 12% of the people who park there pay nothing, 20% pay just 75 cents for two hours, and another third pay $1.50 for three hours!
Northampton offers an experience as a downtown and offers a place where people want to come and hang out. The Picture Main Street project builds on that with more space for people to hang out, dine on the sidewalk, and walk or roll side-by-side down the sidewalk.
In 2014, Walker Parking Consultants found:
“Overall, the parking system had capacity on our survey days, and that finding is consistent with informal observations made on other visits and with information provided by staff. Our off-street, public occupancy rates were very close to counts done in 2000 for a previous study (we found 83 percent peak occupancy, whereas the earlier study found 85 percent peak occupancy)...Our counts find that under most typical conditions, a driver should be able to find parking within a few blocks.”
The recommendations of this report largely mirror many of the measures enacted by Mayor Sciarra in March 2023 to address the REAL problem - circulation (the fact that cars stayed too long in prime parking spots at the wrong times).
In 2022, Stantec parking expert Jason Schrieber shared in his parking system analysis:
“In peak hours, Main Street is at full capacity and off-street lots are significantly below 85%. This observation can be reversed by adjusting pricing, rather than supply. When front door “Main Street” spaces are priced higher, more remote and less utilized spaces can be priced cheaper, or in times of low-demand, free.”
It was many of the recommendations of this report that were implemented in March of 2023.
Based on feedback from parking managers, enforcement officers, and downtown visitors, Mayor Sciarra believes that Main Street parking has improved. We're now collecting data for a six-month review of the changes made in March and will soon update residents. If more modifications are necessary, the city will make them - in the ongoing cycle of using data to inform good policy.
Q2: I love the angled parking spaces. It’s too hard to parallel park.
A2: There will be many angled parking spots on Main Street and on all of Crafts Avenue.
That said, studies show that angled parking is unsafe. This is part of why Main Street is on the list as one of the most unsafe streets in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Most cities in the USA have parallel parking in their downtowns. In fact, even in Northampton, most of our main arteries are parallel parking - upper and lower Main Street, Pleasant Street, King Street, Gothic, Center, Strong… and so on. People park in all of those locations.
There are also 1,000 front-in parking spaces in lots just off Main Street and the E.J. Gare Garage. We must embrace the idea that the city’s success is not built on being able to park directly in front of a given store on Main Street; it’s built on being a great place to visit, shop, see a show, and eat. We need to focus on what that means in the modern economy and build more of that. The Picture Main Street project is a critical, once-in-a-generation opportunity to use state funds to help us achieve what’s next.
Q3: Angled parking is easier for visitors with disabilities.
Q3: Some definitely think so, and some prefer parallel. It depends on the individual and how their vehicle is set up to assist their disability. We’ve heard from fans of both approaches, which is why the Picture Main Street plan includes accessible spaces on Main Street that are both angled parking and parallel parking style.
The Picture Main Street plan also increases the number of accessible parking spots on Main Street by two additional spaces.
Q4: But 57 spaces? That seems like a lot!
A4: We have tested this reduction in spaces over the past three summers. The current outdoor dining program incorporates 57 parking spaces. This is a live test of what it’s like to live without those spaces, and it’s worked to bring people back downtown since the pandemic. The outdoor dining and other vibrancy activities downtown have restored the city’s local receipts revenues, such as meal taxes - more space for more people really works!
Q: Why do we need bike lanes on Main Street?
A: Since 2015, Northampton has been a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Complete Street Program. “A Complete Street is one that provides safe and accessible options for all travel modes - walking, biking, transit, and vehicles – for people of all ages and abilities.” This is already baked into Northampton’s culture and governing philosophy - and the Picture Main Street project is just implementing the latest and best in urban design to realize these worthwhile goals.
From the first survey conducted in early 2020 and after several initial community meetings, the following top 5 goals were identified for the redesign:
Dedicated bike lanes are great for everyone. They result in fewer injuries, improved traffic flow, safer sidewalks, they’re better for the environment, and they make people healthier.
Q2: We’ve got a great bike path that goes right next to Main Street on the rail trail - why can’t cyclists just use that?
A2: They can, and they do - but cyclists have a legal right to use Main Street (and every street) safely.
It can be hard to change our way of thinking about our roads, but we must. The fact is bicycles, pedestrians, and cars use Main Street - and each has an equal right to a safe amount of space to enjoy. Bicycles should be able to ride down the street and have a chance to pull up next to their destination on Main Street just like a car does. It’s not equitable to say they should be relegated to just the bike path.
The good news is that there’s plenty of room for every kind of transportation people want to use. The science shows that we can accommodate separated bike lanes on Main Street without harming traffic flow.
Current and future bicycle and pedestrian access must be incorporated, and the community has overwhelmingly supported (66%) separate bike lanes on Main Street. This, coupled with the engineering analysis required for MassDOT’s pre-25% submittal that describes safety tradeoffs for different treatment types, led to the separated lane being selected above others by the traffic safety specialists.
The Picture Main Street plan reallocates space that previously has only focused on wide, inconsistent, and dangerous vehicle lanes and assigns it to be shared with the other road users so that it’s genuinely a Main Street for everyone. Again, while today’s Main Street caters to vehicles, the redesign will ensure that Main Street is equitable, viable, and accessible for all. Numerous stakeholder meetings, surveys, and community meetings were held to evaluate interests and tradeoffs selected by residents. This information is accessible here.
In addition to the reasons stated above, in April 2023, the new Vulnerable Road Users laws went into effect in Massachusetts. These laws include a variety of measures intended to increase roadway safety in Massachusetts. In accordance with MGL c. 90 §14, in passing a vulnerable user, the operator of a motor vehicle shall pass at a safe distance of not less than 4 feet and at a reasonable and proper speed. As a result of this new law, the installation of separated bike lanes has become an imperative inclusion in the Picture Main Street design to ensure the safety of cyclists and to comply with state law.
Q3: I’ve heard that separated bike lanes aren’t safer - and that there’s a study out there that proves it.
A3: Some have raised concerns about bicycle/pedestrian conflicts with a separate lane. The lane will elevate cyclists and make them more visible to vehicles and pedestrians. Cyclists will thus be easier to see by pedestrians than if they were in the lane of traffic blocked from view by parked cars.
Others point to an article in Forbes Magazine claiming that separated bike lanes are not safer. This article was written by a person who works at a conservative think tank focusing on energy and the environment and who has written extensively advocating for increased use of fossil fuels, more pipelines, and looser environmental regulations, including a book titled Regulating to Disaster: How Green Jobs Policies are Destroying America's Economy. The study she cites in the article was a master’s thesis, not a peer-reviewed study. Just over a month and a half later, the same magazine - Forbes - published a story entitled, “Protected Bike Lanes Increase Safety, Save Money And Protect The Planet, New Report Finds.”
The Federal Highway Administration recently (February 2023) released a summary of its report about Crash Modification Factors (CMF) for separated bike lanes, using Cambridge, Massachusetts, as one of the study locations. The research found that, at a 99% confidence interval, separated bike lanes are expected to reduce crash rates by approximately 50% over conventional bike lanes.
In 2016, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) cited “Studies from cities across America show that adding protected bike lanes significantly increases bike ridership on those streets with rates ranging from 21% to 171%. Additionally, People for Bikes states, 'On D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue protected bike lane, bicycle volumes increased 200 percent after the facilities were installed (District Department of Transportation, 2012),' and 'The average protected bike lane sees bike counts increase 75 percent in its first year alone (National Institute for Transportation and Communities).'
Q: This is such a huge undertaking that it’s common sense to set up a trial run to ensure this will work.
A: We do not have the ability to conduct a demonstration project that would put all the pieces accurately together. We are moving toward 75% design details based on the volume of study, community input, community goal setting, and engineering expertise regarding road diet and safety improvements.
There is no part of the Picture Main Street design that will be implemented for the first time with this project. These are tried and true strategies that have been tested by engineering experts all over the country. Northampton is not the first municipality to implement this type of roadway redesign. Similar implementations have occurred throughout the Commonwealth, and the design and solutions have been thoroughly tested and proven effective.
For example, there are existing downtown streets in Northampton with greater traffic volumes than Main Street that have two lanes with parallel parking (King Street, Lower Main Street, Pleasant Street), which shows us that traffic can be accommodated and function with emergency access.
The proposed redesign is not just about physical changes to the street. The project involves interrelated measures that would be impossible to implement in a trial run. Some of these measures would require long lead times. If we only do the easy stuff and leave out important elements, a trial run will not show how the system will actually work. Rather, it will be a waste of time and money.
Aside from the technical reasons why this won’t work listed below, it takes time for people to get used to using a new layout and to develop new habits. The period of a trial run would be a little like the first week of actual plan implementation, only worse. Think about the roundabouts that have been successfully implemented here and elsewhere. When they were first proposed, many people were horrified and were convinced they wouldn't work. And when they first went in, there was plenty of confusion as people struggled to learn how to navigate them. We all know that the roundabout at the Coolidge Bridge has forever changed Friday afternoon coming from Amherst.
To further explain why a trial run is not simply a low-cost matter of placing cones in the street to see how it works, here are just some of the specific measures that would have to be part of a realistic trial run:
Thus a trial run cannot be developed to accomplish what is intended by the Picture Main Street design. However, we have dozens of examples of these treatments being implemented successfully elsewhere.
That being said, one component of the Picture Main Street design has been successfully tested for the last three years - see FAQ PARKING, A4.
Q: There haven't been traffic studies to make sure this will work.
A: This is incorrect. MassDOT requires a study as part of the justification for the proposed design. In January 2021, Toole Design submitted its 967-page Functional Design Report with all the data, statistics, and analysis that form the backbone of the proposed design solution. This report is linked within the Storymap on the city’s website. MassDOT engineers spent months reviewing the submittals to ensure that the standards and design justification were met. They do not allow a project to move forward to the 25% design public hearing until this data has been fully vetted.
Q: Can two lanes handle as much traffic as four lanes?
A: Main Street doesn’t have four lanes today. Upper and lower Main Street are one lane in each direction with parallel parking on either side. It’s the width of middle Main Street where drivers create additional, undefined “lanes” and this space is used to weave in and out of other traffic which creates an unsafe condition for all other users.
The Storymap describes the pros and cons of a design alternative that defines four lanes of traffic in the section of Main Street that could accommodate this. The result is sidewalks that would be less than 5’ wide and unable to accommodate ADA-compliant restaurant use, narrower curb extensions, and fewer trees, to name a few. This would be inconsistent with all the public input supporting the goal of wider sidewalks and safer crosswalks.
Of the several design alternatives developed based on public comments, surveys, and stakeholder meetings, the final alternative approved by MassDOT to move forward was selected as a compromise that met the publicly generated goals of the project to a much greater degree than the other alternatives. The analysis of the alternatives reviewed with the goals is included in the functional design report and Storymap.
Q: Narrowing the width of Main Street will cause extreme traffic congestion.
A: Traffic jams in the project area are mostly due to outdated signal timings at four key intersections. We covered this in our 25% design public hearing and it's backed by in-depth engineering studies. Lower Main Street, which has a higher traffic volume, already functions well. Our plan—adding a third turning lane, clearly marking lanes, reducing crossing distances, and updating signal timings—will manage traffic flow without reducing current capacity. Much of this congestion is created when drivers weave within the width of the roadway that is not clearly delineated. All four signalized intersections will have new signal modules and technology to manage flow in a coordinated pattern.
Q: I hear that emergency vehicles won’t be able to make it through the new design.
A: In the initial planning and throughout the planning stages, the Fire/Rescue Department and Police Department reviewed the plans and whatever adjustments they thought were important were made. Both the Fire/Rescue Chief and the Police Chief fully support the approved design. Most of Northampton's roads are two lanes, and our plan adds a third center turning lane. This extra lane allows for smoother emergency vehicle passage, especially when cars comply with the Commonwealth's emergency vehicle and 'Move Over Laws.' The new three-lane design will actually be wider than existing lanes on Pleasant Street, Lower Main Street, and King Street up to Stop & Shop.
Q: Right now, during a snowstorm, the city piles the snow in the middle of the street. Where is the snow going to go in this new design?
A: We recognize that snow management will change with the new layout. Unlike Northampton, most northern cities don't have wide enough streets to store snow in the middle. Our design team has studied how similar communities handle snow removal effectively. This includes Edmonton, Canada, St. Paul, MN, Madison, WI, Cambridge/Somerville/Greenfield, MA, and Burlington, VT. The DPW has been consulted on the change and is developing a plan for snow removal and storage.
Q: Northampton already has lots of vacant storefronts. I’m worried that already stressed businesses will have to close and I’ve heard many business owners downtown don’t support this.
A: We're keenly aware that construction will present challenges for our downtown businesses and residents alike. The project, spread over three seasons, will have phases of intense activity followed by quieter periods. This cyclical nature offers both challenges and windows of opportunity. To navigate this, we're in close collaboration with the business community and Toole Design to strategize ways to mitigate the impact and maximize business benefits. Our city's economic development team is also actively brainstorming events, exhibits, and special programming to draw people downtown and support businesses during the construction phases.
Q2: I’ve heard that there are no plans for how to handle construction and the city won’t say what the schedule will be and what will be the impact on businesses and traffic.
A2: As stated from the beginning of this project and reiterated in the public hearing, it is critical to develop a construction phasing plan that minimizes impact on downtown businesses to the greatest extent feasible. Mayor Sciarra is actively working on strategies to mitigate the impacts of construction on businesses and every other downtown user. In fact, the top priority for everyone involved in this project is to discuss planning for the construction phase. We are eager to address this concern as soon as we reach the project stage where we have the necessary information, as scheduling cannot be determined until the construction plans are finalized.
Northampton recently completed its 25% submission to the MassDOT TIP program. From here, MassDOT works with our consultants on the details of the project, mapping out the finest details and measuring the inches between specific elements of the plan. In order to get here, Northampton had to provide detailed technical specifications and demonstrate that there had been significant public input to the process. MassDOT held the public hearing in Northampton in April 2023.
Toole Design is currently working on the 75% design plans that will meet the criteria for submission to MassDOT. After this submittal, Toole will help the city develop a cost and time-effective plan with business community feedback for phasing construction to minimize the impact on downtown businesses. We are very eager to work with downtown stakeholders to develop plans, strategies, and communication tools to keep everyone informed and engaged during construction and to incentivize people to come downtown during that time. Here is the timeline given during the public hearing. This may be pushed back depending on the length of review time undertaken by MassDOT.
Q: Where can trucks unload if not in the middle?
A: The plans for the redesign incorporate dedicated truck loading/unloading spaces on lower Main Street as well as four locations on upper Main Street. These are distributed between the north and south sides and the east and west ends of Main Street. Unloading at the curb is far safer for the drivers who will not be stepping into traffic to unload and for pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles who will not have oncoming traffic obscured by the large trucks parked in the middle of the road.
Q: I hear this plan cuts down trees downtown - how is that a good idea?
A: The city’s Tree Warden and the Northampton Urban Forestry Commission fully support removing many of Main Street's existing trees, which are in varying states of health and some nearing the end of their life cycle, and planting a more extensive and healthier tree canopy. This is based on a thorough 2021 tree health assessment. The current trees were often planted in insufficient space, compromising their health. In their place, we'll be planting a substantial number of new, healthy trees in a more sustainable manner—increased soil volume, connected trenches, and structural soil. These improvements aim to extend tree lifespan and prevent sidewalk damage. Tree planting isn't an afterthought; our design intentionally allocates space for healthy tree growth. We'll be increasing the overall tree count by 36. It's worth noting that in our Picture Main Street survey, 80% of respondents ranked new trees and green infrastructure as their top priority.
Q: My customers are not just people who can walk and bike into town or only those who live within a four-mile radius. Even if I live within four miles, I still don’t want to have to bike or walk.
A: No one is suggesting that anyone must walk or bike downtown. If someone needs or wants to drive downtown, there is plenty of parking to accommodate them - see FAQ PARKING. This data point is meant to show that many of the city’s residents have walking or biking access to downtown and may opt to come downtown this way, particularly if the road is made safer. The redesign is planned to create a safe space for all who arrive by whatever chosen mode. Those who park and walk to various destinations need to have safe spaces like those who arrive by walking or biking.
Q: I’ve heard some people say that this redesign will make it harder for people with accessibility issues to navigate or park. Some say that accessible/handicapped spaces are being removed for the redesign.
A: We've heard questions and concerns about the project's impact on accessibility. It's crucial to set the record straight: improving accessibility is one of the core goals of the Picture Main Street redesign. Whether you're navigating public spaces or accessing private buildings, the new design aims to make life easier, especially for those facing mobility challenges or age-related issues.
Main Street currently faces multiple accessibility challenges—narrow and uneven sidewalks, as well as curb ramps and signals that fail to meet national accessibility standards. These issues restrict the mobility and independence of residents and visitors alike. The new design aims to fix this by shortening crosswalks, dedicating separate lanes for different modes of transportation, ensuring at least five feet of clear sidewalk space, and increasing the number of accessible parking spots. There will be two more accessible parking spaces than what we have now, many of which will be angled for those who find that to be easier access.
Our partner, Toole Design, has incorporated numerous public comments into their plans. Supported by current engineering best practices, their design includes several key changes that will improve both mobility and access on Main Street.
Specific ways the Picture Main Street project improves access:
Q: We shouldn’t be wasting city money on changes that aren’t needed.
A: As of right now, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is picking up $19 million dollars of the cost to make Main Street safer, accessible, vibrant, and environmentally friendly. At the same time, Mayor Sciarra has set aside $3 million worth of American Rescue Plan Act funds to upgrade all of the city’s 100+ year-old water, sewer, and drainage infrastructure while construction is underway. That project is decades overdue, and we’ll never have a better opportunity. Without Picture Main Street/DOT covering street excavation, the city would be paying substantially more than $3M for the water and sewer upgrades as we would bear the full cost of excavation.
These things have to happen. There are laws and regulations about how they have to happen. The Picture Main Street project is the result of years of careful planning, community discussion, and compromise that drove a solution that will ensure our downtown continues to be a place where people want to live, work, and play in the future.
Q: I hear that it’s not true that Main Street isn’t safe, or that it isn’t that bad. I hear that the accident data is cherry-picked and exaggerated to justify the project. There have to be safer ways to do this that are less costly and less drastic.
A: The safety data described in the 25% design public hearing was a snapshot of the detailed safety audit and analysis mandated by MassDOT to be presented in order to justify the project. That analysis is available here. MassDOT engineers evaluated the city’s design engineering analysis for 8+ months to ensure that the project met their standards.
Main Street is dangerous, which is why MassDOT has prioritized this project and is making such a significant investment in our city.
Q: There wasn’t enough public input on this project. The city wants to do what it wants to do and doesn’t want to hear what people think.
A: The Picture Main Street project has been presented to, and discussed with, the community in many public meetings over the past three years, and changes were made to the initial design based on feedback from those meetings. One of Mayor Sciarra’s first acts as a new mayor was to preserve more angled parking in the chosen plan based on public input.
This slide was part of MassDOT’s Public Hearing Presentation. Minutes and some recordings can be found at northamptonma.gov. This is not a comprehensive list of all public meetings, because many city committees, commissions, and boards had public, legally posted meetings about the project as well.
Q: They’re going to eliminate the pedestrian-only signal at Main and King Streets - that’s my favorite!
A: The all-way simultaneous pedestrian signal has been said to be a different or charming feature of this intersection. However, this feature is not safe and does not meet safety standards for today's streets. This is because it creates long delays for both pedestrians, who have to wait full long signal cycles to cross, and for vehicles that have to wait a longer ped signal before the green. This extra length of time also affects all the other signals in the corridor.
Because of these long delays, pedestrians are more likely to walk against the signal and risk harm. Similarly, vehicles are likely to speed through a red to avoid waiting for the cycle for green again. The safer solution designed for these intersections is called a “leading pedestrian interval” which allows pedestrians to cross with traffic, but they are provided the walk sign before the green vehicular signal. That puts them in the crosswalk ahead of vehicles in order to be visible.