Special to the Independent
New data released show that innovative streets projects popping up across Massachusetts over the course of the pandemic have created safer, more vibrant public spaces for all, particularly children and older adults, small businesses, and essential workers.
The report, Quick and Creative Street Projects: Measuring the Impact in Mass, includes examples and impact data from 23 municipalities including Everett that experimented with low-cost street changes such as making space for chairs and tables for neighbors to sit and chat, slowing down traffic via cones so kids can play and bike to school, and painting bus lanes for essential workers to travel faster. The report also includes takeaways from interviews conducted with business owners across the state.
“Streets can be a powerful tool to bring people together and improve quality of life if we think creatively about all they have to offer,” said Lisa Jacobson, Mobility Senior Program Officer at the Barr Foundation, which sponsored the report. “We are learning through these projects that devoting streets to the sole purpose of moving or parking cars isn’t serving residents, and we should be excited to try other ideas.”
Safety for kids
Many of the projects pursued through opportunities like the Shared Streets & Spaces grant program focused on improving safety, particularly near schools and senior centers. In Arlington, a traffic circle made out of cones – no construction required – dropped the number of people speeding by 65 percent. In Salem, narrowing a road via new bike lanes encouraged safer driving behaviors and reduced speeding (more than 40 mph) in a school zone by 61 percent.
Outdoor seating created in street spaces previously devoted to driving and parking cars strengthened the relationship between residents and their local downtowns and became a lifeline for businesses. In a survey of residents who used outdoor seating in their communities, 75 percent said these areas made them more likely to walk, shop, and dine. Separately, 57 percent of businesses interviewed reported increases in revenue. In Amherst, transforming 11 parking spots into outdoor dining created space for 80 people; in Great Barrington, closing one block to car traffic allowed for 125 people to eat and socialize together safely.
Bus and bike
Some projects focused on making it easier for people to travel without a car. New painted lanes in Everett made trips 35 percent faster for bus riders, many of whom are essential workers who rely on public transit. Through new dedicated bike lanes, 5,500 people can now bike comfortably to Pittsfield businesses within 15 minutes of where they live; in Sterling, 6.5x more residents and visitors can bike to Main Street businesses from the Mass Central Rail Trail on a more comfortable route.
Public opinion polling shows that the types of interventions highlighted in the report have broad support among Greater Boston residents, with 79 percent supporting more space for outdoor dining, 75 percent supporting new bike lanes, and 71 percent supporting wider sidewalks – even if those changes mean less space for parking and driving.