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Options for Opening N. Main Street

A few weeks ago, I suggested that we close part of N. Main from Charles Street to Olney Street--this would open it to bus and bike traffic. This idea came from the example of Mayor Ignazio Marino of Rome, who opened the Via del Fori Imperiali to pedestrians. The N. Main opening pairs with my idea to make Exchange Street bike and bus only, and serves as a potential pilot project to add teeth to the promise of bus rapid transit and protected bike lanes for the city's major thoroughfares. 

I took a walk the other day, and since have looked at a lot of maps, and between the on-the-ground experience and the mapping, decided that my idea is even more easily practical than I originally thought. Having cars divert from N. Main doesn't have to mean a dead end to traffic, but can instead just detour cars onto Charles and Randall Streets, bringing them back to N. Main on the other side. This would allow the area between the Main/Charles split and Olney Street to go car-free while only adding 1/10th of a mile to drivers' journeys.

Jeff Speck, author of The Walkable City, talks about "urban triage". This means taking places in our city that have many of the characteristics that would make them nice to walk in and perfecting them rather than throwing our resources into areas that would be expensive to change. While much of N. Main could arguably fall into the second category, my observations

Where Benefit meets N. Main. It even has a (mostly unused) park, as if to suggest that people want pedestrians.

Charles Street just south of I-95 onramps.

lead me to think this small section of N. Main could be improved for relatively little, and could really amplify the advantages of Benefit Street, Olney Street, and the new R-Line. Making these changes would also draw on advantages of business access to sites such as the N. Main Whole Foods while maintaining the same level of access for cars. This section of Charles Street, on the other hand, is basically the entrance way to I-95, and is already even more highly designed towards cars, and has fewer useful services, and so it makes sense to let that stay the access route for drivers.

What Are We Exchanging?
Cars would go 1/10th of a mile farther to get to N. Main and Doyle with the detour.

Transit users would gain a partial right-of-way, which would give buses a head start using the R-Line's already-existing ability to lengthen green lights.

Pedestrians would gain a sitting and walking area on part of the street. Bicyclists would have a safe Olney Street, a safe connection between Benefit and N. Main.

Housing alongside the N. Main hill would become much more pleasant to live in.

Charles and Randall would have cars on them, which is already the case, so nothing is lost or gained here.

What Would This Cost?

The bike and pedestrian aspects of this change are extremely cheap. We can really just put a few bollards down to stop cars from accessing the street in the car-free area (green). In the "local traffic" area (yellow) we could add some speed bumps or other traffic calming, or even leave the street as it is. 

The only slightly complicated part of the project would be making the bus-only lanes accessible by bus without leaving them open to cars. In some places this is done with retractable pneumatic bollards. This would be an investment, but nothing on par with the kind of money we waste on repaving roads over and over after we bang the hell out of them with our cars. As I've said before, the advantages of true BRT with actual bus lanes is that bus drivers, who are paid by the hour and not by the mile, can move their buses more efficiently at the same price. If we're calculating cost-benefits, I'm certain that the labor costs saved by a more efficient bus system would repay the capital cost of bollards almost immediately. But we should try this out with cones and volunteers first, to see how we like it.

So how about it, drivers? Do you think you'd be willing to drive 0.1 mile farther than usual in order to have a more efficient bus system, cleaner air, less road maintenance (read, lower taxes), higher housing values, and more recreational opportunities? It's a no-brainer. Let's do it.


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