Getting Pittsfield connected to the Ashuwillticook
Pittsfield is ready to get on board connecting the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail to a right-of-way within its city limits. This is an initiative that has weighed heavily on me and probably many Pittsfield residents since the rail trail first opened many years ago. Unless you are a confident and experienced bicycle rider, the only way to get access to the trail is to drive there. In my opinion, this goes against the fundamental design and purpose of a nature trail, and should be corrected. What's more, how many riders and joggers from north county currently reach the end of the trail at Lanesborough, and then turn around and go back? My guess is in the ballpark of 100%. Getting the city of Pittsfield connected to this trail will open up the tap of visitors from the towns of north county. This could only mean good things for the city.
Currently, there is a design nearing completion for extending the trail from its current starting point near the Berkshire Mall to the old railroad crossing at Crane Avenue in Coltsville. This is one of the most difficult links in the trail, since it needs to negotiate the Unistress concrete plant grounds. I'm optimistic that the design challenges there have been ironed out, and we can see work start on this trail section sometime soon. What happens after that point? This feature will be addressing that question in what will surely be an ambitious plan to connect the heart of Pittsfield with the rail trail. A safe, seamless ride from North Street in downtown Pittsfield to the center of the Town of Adams.
The Eastside Greenway
The three tenets of the Eastside Greenway concept are connectivity, safety, and cost-effectiveness. I believe that each of these tenets will contribute to making this the first of many innovative mobility projects around the city. What is a greenway? This term can be compared to others like bicycle boulevard, multi-use trail or cultural corridor. This would not necessarily be the final title of the corridor, but more like a working title, or "codename" to guide what will likely be a long development process. The work would take place in phases, starting with local interest and buy-in, and interim phase to test the route plan, a phased build out as resources become available, and finally the "last spike" as the Ashuwillticook and Eastside Greenway are joined as one seamless corridor.
- Connectivity: This Greenway will join three neighborhoods of the city in a way that may not have been considered before. Downtown Pittsfield, Morningside, and Allendale will all share the route, and travel between the neighborhoods will be seamless. Morningside Community School and Allendale Elementary will also fall along the route. On a larger scale, the city will now join Lanesborough, Cheshire and Adams along the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail.
- Safety: The goal of laying out the Greenway is also to demonstrate that there can be a safe and healthy way to cross town without the use of an automobile. The route has been designed to direct riders away from the high speeds and vehicle volumes of the arterial streets that cross the city. Residential and neighborhood streets will be used as shared roadways, with acceptable levels of traffic volume and speeds to make for a pleasant ride. The part of Tyler Street that is used for the Greenway route would feature the city's first protected cycle track, as demonstrated at Better Block on August 26th in front of the Tyler Street Firehouse.
- Cost-effectiveness: In a time when it seems Americans are all too eager to spend their way out of urban problems, such as with new freeways or sprawling edge growth, this project is not meant to be a big-budget spectacle. In fact, the goal is to get a high quality piece of transportation infrastructure with minimal investment from city or state agencies. This is possible because the route uses previously-existing roads as its backbone. The one exception to this would be a 0.3-mile stretch where new trail would need to be paved on about a half acre of land. This would be key to joining the Ashuwillticook to the Greenway.
Time to cut right to the chase and discuss the physical layout of the route. It can be seen graphically in the adjacent aerial view of Pittsfield: the blue line. Traveling east, the Greenway begins on Burbank Street where it intersects with North Street. The route follows Burbank Street from its beginning to end, crossing First Street and Cherry Street. Burbank is unique because it follows Tyler Street so closely, but is much calmer and quieter. With some traffic calming treatments this will be even more pronounced. Once Burbank street banks left and joins Tyler Street, the Greenway will do the same.
This is where the two-way cycle track will begin, and it will keep riders safe because they will not need to cross the street or conflict with moving Tyler Street traffic. The cycle track would be fashioned from the wide parking lane along the eastbound side of Tyler. It is wide enough to allow two directions of bike lanes to pass on the same side of the street. See the proposed profile illustration below. As Tyler Street turns into Dalton Avenue, the Greenway will break away and follow Tyler Street as it runs behind the "teens" parcel and other former GE buildings. As Morningside transitions into Allendale, the Greenway will turn left onto New Hampshire Avenue, and then turn right onto Connecticut Avenue. This street will take riders all the way through Allendale, past Allendale Elementary, until it intersects with California Avenue. Finally, California Avenue terminates at Plastics Avenue, which is where the Greenway will end and join the fully extended Ashuwillticook Rail Trail near Merril Road. This is the section where new pavement would need to laid down, as the Greenway would follow the old rail bed that runs along Merril Road from Plastics Avenue to the railroad crossing just before Dick's Sporting Goods.
Challenges and solutions
This project is by no means a silver bullet that can be implemented overnight. There are still some design and strategy questions that I do not know how to answer right away. Being a realist, though, I think it is prudent to highlight these challenges now so they can be discussed thoughtfully later.
One overall concern I am sure some will share is the perceived safety of shared streets. Mixing bicycle riding and traffic could be an unnerving thought. This is a tried and true method, though, on streets that carry low vehicle volume and speed. There are some more actions that can be taken to further ensure safety as well. As part of this entire project, or with each phase at minimum, a traffic study will need to be conducted on the street segments being considered for the Greenway. This study would include observing average vehicle speeds, vehicles passing per minute at peak times of the day, and a parking study, as well, to learn about on-street parking usage over the course of the day. Lighting enhancements can also be considered for better night-time safety. More traffic calming measures, such as speed humps, could also be considered.
I let the P-word slip just now, and there is little doubt that parking concerns would arise as part of the Tyler Street cycle track proposal. Again, a formal study would be our first tool to assess the real-world numbers and space usage for each of the four blocks that the cycle track would comprise. From my personal experience of visiting these blocks, it seems that there is a higher amount of parking usage on the eastbound side of Tyler Street, and all of this parking would be preserved. On the other side of the street, there are two full residential blocks, the St. Mary's church campus, and a commercial parcel with an off-street parking lot. There seems to be less of a demand for on-street parking on this side, which would give the flexibility needed to keep the parking on the higher demand side. This can be explored in greater detail when the time comes.
A very specific challenge of this Greenway route is the intersection of Tyler Street-Dalton Avenue-Woodlawn Avenue. Creating a safe transition from the two-way cycle track on the west side of this intersection back to riding on either side of the street on the east side of the intersection will be a great design challenge. It is entirely surmountable, but the real challenge will be the added cost of the infrastructure changes (rather than just line paint changes), and phasing the redesign on a realistic timeline. Widening the pavement that continues east on Tyler Street would probably be the easiest option to allow bicycles and cars to pass safely. This intersection could also be a good candidate for a small-scale roundabout.
Another specific challenge is the one-way section of Burbank Street between North Street and First Street. The eastbound direction of the trail would be following the flow of traffic, but going westbound would be against the flow. This can be solved with a contra-flow bike lane for this block of the street; basically a very narrow separated lane just for bicycles, separated by a double yellow line, just like a motor vehicle lane. This would be the first of its kind in Pittsfield.
Finally, an overall challenge to keep in mind is to have good road surfaces for the Greenway route, and to coordinate phases of implementation with planned road resurfacing. Some sections are already in fine shape; Connecticut Avenue was recently resurfaced and is completely smooth. Burbank Street is in fair condition and presents no immediate hazards for safe riding. Parts of Tyler Street and New Hampshire Avenue, on the other hand, could be described with words such as "washboard," and "minefield." We cannot have a truly effective Greenway without smooth surfaces to ride on, so unsafe sections of the route would need to be prioritized for maintenance.
Making a Greenway
What would make the Greenway more than just a series of normal streets with bikes on them? This corridor will stand out from others through the use of conspicuous wayfinding, new street furniture, and the possibility of more innovative traffic calming measures. In order to keep riders going the right way, a well-branded and unique wayfinding system will need to be created. This system would consist of a route logo and directional arrow signs hung consistently along the route in both directions. This is a necessity for guiding visitors from the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, and also for Pittsfield residents to find their way to the trail head and any other points of interest. Distance measurements and travel times to other destinations can also be valuable information to post along the route. The signs will also warn drivers that they are sharing the Greenway with riders, and alert cross traffic to the possibility of passing bicycles.
The elementary schools along the route would make excellent "trailhead" locations, with bike maintenance stations, seating, and bike parking. Hopefully this could help encourage children to ride to school even more.
It would be important to have a consistent message and branding to let riders know that they are travelling along one continuous system, and make them all the more aware of the connective nature of the Greenway. As the route passes through different neighborhoods, welcome signs could be placed as a way of encouraging riders to keep moving, and to demonstrate the progress they are making on the ride. Some of the unique entities that would find themselves along the route can add their unique flair as well. The Greenway passes through the entire Tyler Street TDI district, and after the strong reception for Better Block, it is a no-brainer to integrate this kind of project with the overall TDI mission. The trail would also pass the community gardens at the Rice Silk Mill apartments, and may also share a route with the proposed Springside Park Food Forest trail. Funky lighting, mile markers, rest stops, and wayfinding signs could also be sponsored by locals to make the Greenway a cultural corridor. The more unique and scenic of a route, the more attractive it will be for riders to make the journey.
This is a project that has been sitting in my notes and in my head for the better part of the year 2017, and I think there is no better time to put it out in the open than now. Adams has recently completed their extension of the Ashuwillticook, and North Adams is considering a bicycle route from its western gateway with Williamstown. As the Pittsfield rail trail extension design continues to progress, what better way to keep the momentum going than by completing a keystone project to connect the heart of the city with the eventual rail trail extension? I can't think of a better motivator. The first steps in determining the future of this project are to spread the word, ride the route, and to collect feedback from residents and businesses that would be abutting the Greenway route. The more who ride it and who see the possibilities of one complete trail will hopefully provide the motivation to expedite further extensions of the rail trail after Crane Avenue. It seems now that many stars are becoming aligned, and it's time to start connecting all the dots. Time to get to work.