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Response to Western Avenue

Oct. 31, 2013 |

For some time, the city has been working on a design for the reconstruction of Western Avenue; after several informational meetings, revisions were presented on Oct. 23. We are greatly concerned about significant shortcomings in the current design. It is our belief the city should be calling for the highest level of safe bicycle accommodation within this design. Such a position represents true forward thinking, and is consistent with the city’s adopted downtown revitalization plan. Over the past 10 years, the wisdom on and standards for transportation projects have shifted dramatically. Today both the Federal Highway Administration and the state transportation agency, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, have explicit policy statements on the need to design in a multi-modal manner and to promote bicycle and walking as equally valid means of transportation. The reasons for this are obvious – reduction in green houses gases as short trips are made by foot or bike; improved health from walking and biking for recreation and travel; less congestion and associated stress; and, equity in public spaces and facilities for all users/taxpayers. This switch to developing a true multi-modal transportation system is the new way of doing business. Truly progressive cities and universities throughout the United States have made this a priority with extremely positive results. The current proposal – which does nothing more than provide shoulders for bicycles — is a plan stuck in 1970 thinking, not a visionary one for 2013 and beyond. The reconstruction of Western Avenue presents a unique opportunity to improve conditions for bicyclists, pedestrians, and the neighborhood. Western Avenue, in fact, exhibits all the criteria of a project highly suited to multi-modal, safe accommodation. These include: • Western Avenue is a major east/west link in Westfield’s transportation system. Bicyclists want to travel this way for the same reasons everyone does – it is one of the few routes that connects key destinations. These destinations include: Westfield State University, Stanley Park, Highland Avenue Elementary School, Noble Hospital, YMCA of Greater Westfield, downtown (including the forthcoming Gaslight District and student housing at Landsdowne Place and Washington Street), the Columbia Greenway, Amelia Park, Amelia Park Ice Arena, Amelia Park Children’s Museum, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Westfield, Westfield Middle School South, and more. • Because of its role as a major connector, Western Avenue has an extremely high level of traffic – 15,000 ADT.2 In addition, the mix of traffic includes automobiles, buses, and trucks. Both of these realities, plus the traffic speed, call for a design that provides a high level of safety for bicyclists. A solid line shoulder is in fact one of the lowest levels of safety for bicycle accommodation. The highest level of safety is, of course, a separate bicycle path. • During a three-month period (November 2012 to January 2013), Western Avenue has been the site of the death and injury of several bicyclists. This fact alone should be enough for all parties to demand a high level of safety for bicycle accommodation – not one of the lowest standards as the current design exhibits. • While the constraints of space confront bicycle accommodation on some roadways, Western Avenue is not one of them. There exists a generous right-of-way of 80 feet. Lack of space then, is not a reason to provide less safe bicycle accommodation – especially in light of the previous point. • Current best practice for transportation design calls for a concept known as “complete streets.” Beyond supporting bicycle and pedestrian trips, complete streets also lower traffic speeds – something the neighborhood has expressed as highly desirable. • While there has been a preliminary suggestion that bicycle accommodation will come in a later phase; this is not a viable option. Major reconstruction is done very infrequently and should address all needs comprehensively. It is highly unlikely future phases will be completed, as this would mean disruption to traffic for a second construction period, queuing to secure additional funding, and undertaking additional public hearings. Segmenting the project, doing complete improvements section by section, would be preferable, or securing additional funding so all parts of the project can go forward simultaneously. • Westfield State University has made a commitment to developing downtown housing. A properly designed Western Avenue would acknowledge this with a multi-modal connector between the University and downtown. In fact, recently published research has shown that safe bicycle accommodations increase the amount of trips made by bicycle.5 Supporting safe bicycle accommodation is a way to address student traffic along Western Avenue, and provide an affordable transportation option for students. • The city’s 2009 downtown plan supports the economic development and recreational aspects of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail. A multi-modal Western Avenue furthers these goals by establishing a network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure connecting to and from the Greenway. A well-designed multi-modal system will bring people to downtown, not merely through downtown. For all these reasons, we believe the city should be designing for the reconstruction of Western Avenue as a multi-modal transportation corridor offering a high degree of safety for pedestrian and bicycle users; reduced traffic speeds for neighborhood residents; and, an increased modal shift from automobiles to bicycles. Jeffrey LaValley Friends of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail Westfield

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