How safe are our streets?
In response to a July article about pedestrian friendly town by Ross Cann, "LastOneLeft," a commentor on eastbayri.com had this to say: "One must only look to the parking lot at the end of the bike path to understand that Bristol, other than downtown, is not a walkable or bike friendly community." Regrettably, these words would prove prescient in a matter of days—a teenager was struck by a car while attempting to cross Metacom Avenue. So how pedestrian friendly are our street, really? And what can we do about it?
The historic centers of towns like Bristol and Warren do seem very pedestrian friendly, but these areas, though highly visible, are just a tiny percentage of each town. Many more people live off the corridor along Metacom Avenue, where "walkability" is clearly an ongoing concern.
According to Ed Tanner, Bristol's Town Planner, "Walkability is very important. Diane (Williamson, Director of Community Development) and I talk about it all the time. Sidewalks on Metacom are a top priority." To that end, Bristol conducted a study of the Metacom corridor two years ago, which was then incorporated into the comprehensive plan. The focus is on high hazard intersections and crosswalks along Metacom Avenue. "All redevelopment on Metacom will get sidewalks, eventually," says Mr. Tanner. "We've written into our regulations that as properties are redeveloped, they need to add sidewalks."
Of course that will take time, a process with which Tanner's Portmouth counterpart, Gary Crosby, is all too familiar. Portsmouth enacted new zoning nearly a decade ago, in 2004, which created a town center among fifty or so parcels around Clements Market. Setbacks were reduced, parking was mandated for the rear of all buildings. "the idea was to encourage walkability and make it more like a downtown, but the reality of private property ownership means development happens organically," says Mr. Crosby. "You can't mandate what private property owners do, they will do what is in their best interests." The pace of change in downtown Portsmouth has, therefore, been glacial. And the economic slowdown that hit not long after the 2004 zoning changes certainly didn't help.
There's another piece to the Portsmouth plan: the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. The D.O.T. has created a plan that includes several roundabouts and turning lanes, through that three-way intersection in downtown Portsmouth, in an effort to increase safety and walkability. According to Mr. Crosby these plans are moving forward with D.O.T. engineers but they are on their own timetable.
There have been some bright spots: reducing traffic to one lane along East main Road north of Clements has "worked very well," says Mr. Crosby, "without the economic impact a number of business owners feared."
Although it may not always be obvious, we are working towards more walkable communities, it's just not something that will happen overnight, particularly along busy roads like routes 114 and 136. Mr. Crosby can see much of that traffic right outside his office windows, a reminder of what a big task it is to effect this kind of change. "When you are dealing with 25-30,000 cars a day, walkability is not that easy to create."
By the numbers:
The walkability ratings of East Bay Communities are highly variable, depending on neighborhood. The numbers below reflect each town's "downtown." Go to walkscore.com for more detailed information.
East Providence 52
Little Compton 38