Downtown: Can a protected bike lane work in the Capital City?

  • Traffic begins to back into South Street in the driveway for Rundlett Middle School during afternoon pickup on Friday. The city’s planning department is proposing a protected bike lane demonstration in the area of the school, but there’s concern about how the demo will impact school traffic. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Traffic begins to back into South Street in the driveway for Rundlett Middle School during afternoon pickup on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. The city's planning department is proposing a protected bike lane demonstration in the area of the school, but there's concern about how the demo will impact school traffic. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/10/2019 4:50:53 PM

There are few places in Concord that offer as chill a biking experience as riding down South Street.

Once you get past the logistical traffic nightmare that is McKee Square – that four-way connecting South, Broadway and Clinton streets together – the road offers a smooth, idyllic ride through the city’s South End.

Leafy trees give you plenty of shade; a wide, flat straightaway is perfect for a sprint or a lazy ride. In 2010, the road was identified as a key leg of the city’s North-South bike route in its cycling master plan.

It’s where the city’s planning department, along with the Transportation Policy Advisory committee’s biking pedestrian group, is aiming to construct a temporary protected bike lane, specifically in the stretch between Allison Street and Abbot-Downing School.

The demo would feature 3-foot buffers and 5-foot bike lanes, leaving decent 12-foot wide travel lanes for vehicles, and portable barriers that physically separate vehicle and biking traffic. The planning committee is aiming to debut the lane in September.

The goal is to introduce the idea of protected bike lanes to the Capital City and test whether they could work here.

But, like other attempts to try protected lanes out, there’s concern about how this could affect motorists.

Specifically, the school district raised concerns about the parents picking up their children from Rundlett Middle School who line the street for up to half an hour before the bell rings at 3:30 p.m. Sometimes, the traffic stretches all the way to the Rite Aid close to McKee Square, said the district’s transportation director Terry Crotty.

It’s not just parents, Crotty said. School buses queue on the street, too, and buses are often in and out when there are sporting events. They’re all competing with residents who park on the street during the day.

The school district isn’t against the idea, Crotty said, and wants to encourage students to walk and bike. “But if the traffic isn’t there, it has to be displaced to somewhere else,” he said.

It seems cyclists and motorists are destined to clash on this subject.

TPAC first tried to do a protected bike lane demo on State Street. But the city said there would be too much impact on the area and would have affected important parking – like the governor’s parking spot.

Then they tried to put a demo lane on Broadway in conjunction with National Night Out. But a combination of uneasiness about introducing it during a busy event, expensive materials and other logistics ruled it out.

In this instance, Crotty wasn’t sure how traffic would react with less space. It’s possible it could spill out into the school’s surrounding neighborhoods, he said, many of which have restrictions that prohibit standing traffic from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. during school months.

But hurdles like how new biking infrastructure will impact motorists are always going to exist, said Dick Lemieux, who sits on TPAC’s biking subcommittee and bikes for transportation.

That doesn’t mean motorist needs should be disregarded. “They’re the majority,” he said, “and I’m sensitive to that.”

“If we can do something that motivates people to let their kids walk or drive to school, that’s a good thing,” he continued. “But the people who don’t want their kids to bike or walk to school because of the traffic, who then drive their kids to school, they are the ones who are then causing the traffic.”

But Lemieux, who supports the protected lane idea, questioned what the committee would ultimately be proving if the South Street bike lane succeeded – and what success would mean.

It’s one thing to prove new infrastructure works on a wide-open street like South Street, he said; it’s quite another when you start looking at some of Concord’s more narrow streets.

“It’s a delicate balance to fit new infrastructure into infrastructure that’s been designed around the cars,” he said. “(The city’s) streets are old; we’re not going to be widening streets or building 5-foot biking lanes on already narrow streets.”

Lemieux is more of the “shared infrastructure is better than dedicated infrastructure” school. If people could learn to slow down and share the road with pedestrians and cyclists (and vice versa), he reasoned, everyone would be able to get to where they need to go safely.

“We have to get along and use what’s available,” he said. “If we really want to make progress, we have to get to a point where people can safely ride on narrow streets.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)




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