MAKING TRANSPORTATION SENSE IN THE HEART OF MONTPELIER, VT—A WORKABLE DESIGN FOR A TRULY CAR FRIENDLY, WALKABLE, BIKEABLE SPACE
Or would the Maquis de Lafayette on his 200th Anniversary of his triumphal tour visit (1825) to Montpelier be able to have exclaimed: “Viva le espace Montpelier!”
There very heart of Montpelier presents an opportunity to shift from a frustrating mix of buses, cars, bicyclists and walkers to a shared environment benefiting all plus boosting the downtown shopping economy.
The basic area for attention: the very central core of the built up area--parts of Main Street, State Street (the City's “sacred street”) and its extension, East State. The street sections are: (1) the three blocks on Montpelier's Main Street from the Winooski River Bridge to to the front of Kellogg-Hubbard Library; (2) State Street from the Post Office/Capital Plaza Hotel to State/Main; and (3) from East State from Main to beginning of the upgrade just past City Center. All changes can be measured to a high standard of comfort, ease of movements without significant delay, and safety—for all users.
Confusion now reigns...
Each section of these streets presents a substantial confusion for all users. There is the section from Barre Street to the Bridge with its the mix of cars and buses plus rail traffic, Shaw's market entry/exit traffic and Stone Cutter's Way entrance always challenge vehicles with left turning traffic often suffering irritating delay. The rail corridor from Main Street west past Shaw's stands as jpart of the planned route connecting the East and West Winooski multi-user bikepaths. (The City plan done with consultant firm Wilbur Smith led to a recommended connection featuring a roundabout at Barre/Main.) The section from Barre Street to Kellogg-Hubbard Library contains the State/Main/East State four-way intersection with a rather long wait cycle for all traffic streams and walkers. Add to this the School Street intersection, a wide area where a walker fatality and other serious injuries have occurred; and the Langdon Street walker crossing because of the adjacent signal seriously conflicts with Main Street vehicle traffic.
From Barre Street to the Library key shopping, City Hall and Fire Station, and City Center generate a constant and varied movement by walkers, bicycles and various motor vehicles throughout the day. Finally there are the several accesses to behind Main Street parking lots with the lack easy access to those lots a downer for shoppers, visitors, and those seeking downtown services.
While State Street improvement installing angled parking in front of the Post Office deservedly received praise the project still left unaddressed problem Elm/State Streets intersection. On East State there is the obvious speed transition of the down grade to flat extending west from the City Center Parking ramp and parking area entrances on the south side—not big problem but one which could be easily addressed by a traffic calming measure.
The long term vision includes “shared space,” a low 0 to 5 mph typical (10 mph maximum) context with all modes mixing, a context where vehicles (including bicycles!) yield to those who walk. This is the safest form of street context, based on experience in Europe where the first installations occurred. The Church Street Marketplace in Burlington (VT) gives a flavor of shared space where College, Bank and Cherry Streets intersection feature a mingling of Marketplace walkers with streams of vehicles, all vehicles operating about 5 mph and yielding at slightest movement of a walker making even a late decision to cross anywhere in the intersection. As a practical matter today, along the sections in Montpelier discussed here a driver who takes care to be ready to yield to walkers can only move at realistically at about 5-7 mph during much of the day—this needs to be kept as a backdrop when considering various treatments suggested below.
The transformation of the core of Montpelier to “shared space” can be viewed as a two-step process with several elements involved in each step. The first step involves installation of infrastructure to enable reduction of speeds and accommodation of bicyclists. Once the infrastructure is in place, the second step is one mostly of process as the City Council working with citizen-driven committees (really starting from the outset and involving both the Planning and Public Works Departments) to slowly and deliberately change the rules and make minor alterations street elements to a final form: a safe haven for walkers and bicyclists while enhancing the experience and efficiency for for cars. That result particularly benefits the business community and their customers as both comfort, ease of movement, and reduced delay all add to a radically improved retail environment.
What distinguishes “shared space” in its pure form from an urban center traffic calmed area represented under the “first step” come from eradicating all signs and signals (the one signal in the Montpelier case gets replaced a roundabout at the beginning stage). Further, the final form of shared space usually involves removal of curbing—again think of the Church Street Marketplace intersections.
Some of the changes infrastructure already exist or can be found in various downtown plans, often from citizen-driven charettes and studies. First, the Keck Circle roundabout already acts to slow traffic at the northern end of the Main Street corridor and enables ease of reversing direction for tractor-trailer business servicing trucks (traffic data indicates about 40 tractor trailers a day traverse Keck Circle). The excellent project at the post office block reduced speeds on adjacent street segments. The planned 90-foot-diameter roundabout, like Keck Circle accommodating all vehicles, at Barre/Main keying the connection of Winooski East and West Bikepaths also establishes a major component of enabling traffic movement at a congested intersection as well as enabling access to the parking areas behind the west side Main Street buildings. (An immediate installation of a demonstration mini roundabout at practically no cost might well help demonstrate what a full roundabout can accomplish--”try before you buy.”)
Various past City planning documents include a number of possible new walker paths, such as (1) the “Kitzmiller” walkway advocated by the late Rep. Karen Kitzmiller connecting State and Langdon Street along side/over the Worcester Branch; (2) a below State Street walker bridge between the Farmer's Market area to the parking area behind Main Street; (3) the elements which connect the East and West Winooski Bikepaths (Wilbur Smith study); and (4) the east Worcester Branch riverbank from State to the rail bridge.
New key elements
There are at least four other major infrastructure elements which allow collapsing Main Street to mostly two traffic lanes and enable bike lanes and other street improvements as less space is devoted to vehicles and more to walking, bicycling, and street amenities —and in the case of East and West State Street, low enough speeds and/or lanes enable bicycles to be reasonably accommodated. Note when Keck Circle came about the extra space, once used for turn lanes no longer needed with a roundabout, immediately became valuable parking spaces.
The four other major infrastructure elements are:
1. A min-roundabout at State and Main
Not enough room exists to accommodate a full roundabout (minimum 90 foot diameter) at State and Main (like Keck Circle or at Main/Barre). A roundabout which allows all movement except left hand turns could be installed, but with the restricted options for movement of emergency vehicles, particularly fire apparatus so that a mini which enables all turns to be made is the realistic choice. With nearby roundabouts and traffic calming elements safety for walkers is enhanced (anything but a roundabout generates up to a 900% greater rate of serious injuries, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tells us). And there is a tremendous reduction in walker delay—one study show less than three seconds delay and anyone can test their own delay experience by just checking out delay at Keck Circle.
- A normal roundabout (like Keck Circle) at School and Main This roundabout pairs with Barre Street Roundabout and a speed table adjacent to Stone Cutters Way providing full traffic calming from Keck Circle to the Bridge. With speeds constrained north bound traffic desiring to turn left onto Langdon Street should find ease of entry, but if southbound vehicles to not oblige then a turn-around at the School Roundabout enables a quick alternative and easy right hand turn. Again, a demonstration mini at little cost be installed at any time to get the basic benefits of a roundabout without further waiting, benefits including increased safety for walker and vehicle occupants and reduced delay for all.
- A mini-roundabout at Elm/State Streets The Elm/State Streets intersection is especially difficult because of the angled approach of Elm to State and lack of room for a full size roundabout. Not only will traffic on the three legs move with little delay or backup, but access to and from the “garage” parking area will be eased. (Note this intersection along with Keck Circle, Spring and Elm, and State and Main together represent the four corners of the basic downtown circulation network, essentially a rectangle supplemented slightly by School as a cross-street midway between Spring and State.)
- Other elements Other elements—some requiring more discussion and analysis—include use of traffic calming (mostly speed tables) to manage speeds on State and East State, possibly through employing raised crosswalks. A “bike track,” a grade separated one or two way bikeway may be explored for parts of all of the street sections under consideration—bike tracks are the type of on-street bikeways in Montral with curbing separating the bikeway from vehicular lanes.
Some final considerations
This outline provides a vision which may be modified, like all visions there needs to be a planning and development phase, but some elements like the roundabouts can be installed at a fairly rapid pace on a prioritized basis. The traffic volumes in the street segments in downtown Montpelier—like most of the County—have changed little or have actually declined since about 1990. Traffic patterns now involve little change and if anything a drift downward. Single lane roundabouts or mini roundabouts easily handle the current and future traffic loads. (Note that from 2000-2010 statewide traffic grew in the single numbers for the first time since emergence of the automobile a century ago.)
There are at least to strategic considerations. As Vermont traffic numbers plateauing and even declining, and with costs of maintaining low volume State roads sure to be an issue, discontinuing VT 12 starting at the Winooski River Bridge north to Morrisville could be a good candidate for removal. First, perhaps 200-300 vehicles actually travel the length of that roadway section daily, and, second, two parallel roads—VT 14 and VT 100 provides alternate routings. Discontinuing VT 12 north of Montpelier would reduce a small but significant amount of Main Street traffic, particularly tractor-trailer numbers which total about 40 a day at Keck Circle.
A second strategic consideration remains the Washington County Railroad (WACR). It is very possible, even likely, that self-propelled single unit rail passenger equipment may connect Barre-Montpelier with a few trains daily to Burlington (there are three studies which relate to this possibility dating from 1989). Such a service which would likely begin in Barre and use the Montpelier transit center as envisioned off Taylor Street would as a practical matter cross Main Street and that potential needs to be kept in mind while planning and developing a “shared space” central downtown traffic design.
Finally Vermont gets it first “mini” roundabout in Manchester Center this year as part of a two roundabout project. The mini at Main/Bonner Streets, VT 7A/30 is about a football field north of “dysfunction junction” VT 7A/11 (Main and Depot Streets, being renamed “function junction” by local leaders in advance of the regular roundabout). Manchester Center is the first town center in the nation to have an all-roundabout circulation plan (1995).
January 13, 2012