For my planning activism with the Greater Waterville Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, I have been looking into a lot of crash data, trying to learn about the nature of accidents in and around Waterville and how they could be mitigated.
I happened upon a story that I didn’t expect to find, but did. Waterville is looking into fixing a 5 way intersection at the corner of Western Ave., Lincoln Ave., and 1st Rangeway. The intersection can be a bit difficult to navigate, but in looking at the crash data for the Waterville area, it appears that the intersection is quite safe compared to other parts of town (Interstate Interchanges & Downtown).
While the perception is that the intersection is unsafe, what generally tends to happen is that people navigating that intersection approach it with some level of hesitation and a heightened awareness. Because everyone knows it is a “bad” intersection, it is made safe because people treat it as if it were a place to be respected. In the list of projects for the City of Waterville and Maine’s DOT is a redo of this “unsafe” intersection. While the improvements may in fact change the perception of the intersection as an “unsafe” place, the data suggests that this is a gross miss-allocation of resources.
Waterville has a downtown business environment that is fighting like hell to remain a viable center of business activity. People take economic risks here by opening up businesses, the downtown development group spends considerable energy building up the downtown, but what is clear to me is that the street network that supports downtown isn’t doing an adequate job.
By the numbers, a two block section of downtown has had 84 accidents in the last 8 years. Most of those are rear-end/sideswipes between people backing out of diagonal stall parking were rear-ended or parallel parkers were sideswiped. As a planner, I know the value of downtown on-street parking to downtown businesses. People need to get in, conduct a transaction, and leave. Eliminating on-street parking is a looser for these businesses and will make traffic even faster due to greater roadway widths. Stories here and here.
What is needed however is a traffic calmed environment that will be a more inviting place for patrons of downtown businesses, families spending a weekend strolling along the shop lined streets, and as a result will slow traffic down, leading to less crashes.
Let me start off by saying that trails are wonderful things. I am involved in a local trails group and wish that I wish we could have trails everywhere. Trails for recreation, transportation, routes to school, routes to work, you name it. When it comes to transportation investments however, would I value a trail or a decent functioning rail transportation system? I will take the choo choo any day of the week.
So the Rails to Trails organizational goals are to essentially ‘bank’ fallow rail lines until they are needed again. Let me repeat the most important part…..until they are needed again. So if I own a rail line, but I don’t have enough business to warrant continuing operation along that line, but I want to see that it is preserved as a rail transportation corridor, I can let the line be converted into a trail. My tax liability goes away and in the meantime, a fun and useful trail can be built on the line for people to enjoy. Win! Win!
However, once those trails become integrated into the community, people begin to consider the trail a community asset and it is difficult to see or remember that the existing rail line was even there at all. I understand this sentiment and can imagine how difficult it is for a community to let go of something like that.
So why bring this up right here, right now. There are a number of rail lines in the State of Maine that have been converted to rail trails. These are in fact great assets to the communities, but if they can safely and efficiently carry passenger and freight rail traffic on them, then they need to be railroads again.
America is at an interesting juncture right now. We are at a point where rail transportation is becoming economically feasible due to high oil prices. In Maine where 3 rail corridors between the New Hampshire Border and the Greater Bangor area have nearly 60% of the population within 5 miles of rail line, we have a tremendous opportunity to establish sensible transportation opportunities. It won’t be for everyone of course, but if you live in a town like Augusta or Waterville and work in Downtown Portland or Bangor, this has the potential to save you money, increase your productivity, and get you somewhere safe and fast.
So what is the middle ground here? What if, where feasible, you could build a trail next to a working rail line? What if the track was at one time double track and only required a single track? Would it not be easier to seek easements and takings next to a functioning rail line to build trails on properties that abut the line, but don’t require a connection to it? I am thinking farms or forests here, not an industrial area. There is a middle ground in many cases.
Where it isn’t feasible or safe to build something like the trail above, then don’t do it. Rails to trails people, if the train is coming back on a line and it will take away your trail, let it happen. Seek the middle ground and see what can be worked out, but do not put up a fight to keep the trail where a higher use of transportation needs to be.
Transit people and bike/pedestrian people are on the same side. We want mobility choices that aren’t reliant on foreign oil, congested roadways, and time spent in gridlock. We want sensible transportation choices that don’t require over 15% of our income to be spent on the automobile industrial complex. When the train comes back to town, let it come. That is the time to start pushing for bike lanes, shared streets, and new bike and pedestrian easements elsewhere. I am sure that in most cases a reasonable compromise or solution can be made, it is just a matter of asking the right questions and thinking about reasonable compromises.
Source Materials: http://railswithtrails.com/
Photo Credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/luton/465706031/
The other day in the Bangor Daily News, there was an article about an 11 year old girl who was struck by a vehicle while walking along a rural road. The girl was walking with her dog and little brother in a stroller and all three were hit. The good news is that everyone was fine and is going to recover. The motorist involved was faced with an oncoming car and the pedestrians in the road. I am not sure why he chose to hit the people without the steel cage around them, nor do I know anthing about the road, pedestrian infrastructure, speed limits or other details. What I do know is that there is a threshold for surviving a pedestrian collision and it somewhere around 20-25 miles per hour, where the greatest gain in survivability happens. I stole this graphic below from an Atlanta based pedestrian rights advocacy group web page (credit where credit is due) that nicely illustrates that survival threshold in pedestrian/automobile collisions.
Taken in the context of my earlier post regarding forgivable highway design and how it encourages faster traffic, perhaps we should be scaling back our streets to make them safer for people who choose to walk.
While on the topic of streets and roads, perhaps we should also be thinking about wide fast streets as places to save money. I am not talking about getting rid of highways outside of our towns and cities, but any time a large state highway is folded into the fabric of a town, whether the town grew around the highway, or the highway came through town, it represents an opportunity to save state highway departments some money by reducing road widths. Those savings can be applied to pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure and treatments that reduce speed through the places where people live, work, shop, and recreate. Additional savings can be passed on to other projects or (gasp) real tax reductions, based on better planning and decision-making.