Society for High Street


Officials rethink bikeway benefits

High Street lanes lead to confusion

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff
December 2, 2004
NEWBURYPORT - Bike lanes in Newburyport are getting mixed reviews.
To Mary Eaton, one of the original advocates of the narrow paths that appeared on High Street in September, the lanes not only help bikers, but calm heavy, speeding traffic, which has been a problem on the road for years.
''It's really astounding. They work," Eaton said of the lanes, which are marked on High Street between the ''three roads" intersection to Olive Street and from Fruit Street to the Newbury line.
But to others, the lanes are a source of uncertainty. Bike lane critics have asked whether bikers or cars have the right of way, whether cars are allowed to cross into the lanes, and what happened to the parking that once existed on High Street.
''It's very confusing," said former mayor Al Lavender, who has spoken out against the new lanes. ''I'm hearing lots of complaints that it's confusing and the answers we're getting to questions are very confusing."
On Monday night, the City Council voted to send the issue of the bike lanes to its subcommittees. The master plan for High Street, which includes the bike lanes, was referred to the planning and development, public safety, and the neighborhoods and city service subcommittees of the City Council.
While the lanes have already been painted on the roads and are in use by bikers, several councilors say they want to reexamine the bike lane plan and make sure the lanes are helping the community and not creating problems on High Street.
''I think everything looked fine on paper, but like anything else, when you put it down, it creates a different view," said Councilor Erford Fowler, who has objected to the lanes in their current form.
For city planners, the negativity surrounding bike lanes comes as somewhat of a surprise. Geordie Vining, a city planner, said Newburyport has considered bike lanes as part of a ''traffic calming" plan for High Street since the late 1990s.
The state Highway Department had plans back then to widen High Street, but locals objected, saying the revamping of the road would ruin its historic look. The state eventually agreed to preserve the street, but has worked with the city to find alternative ways to curb traffic and make High Street usable for bikers and pedestrians, Vining said.
Bike lanes were discussed throughout the planning process for High Street as a remedy for the traffic on the heavily traveled road, he said. High Street sees at least 16,000 cars a day, according to the state Highway Department.
Lavender, who was mayor while some of the High Street plans were discussed, said he never endorsed the bike lanes. When he was asked about them, he said, he requested more information from city planners to see how the lanes would affect the street. He said he was never given answers.
Lavender and Fowler said they like the idea of bikers having more access to roads, but object to the lanes because they were not voted on by the City Council. Fowler said the creation of the lanes wiped out parking spaces for businesses and residences on High Street without going through the necessary channels for approval.
''The City Council is in charge of the streets," Fowler said. ''It should have come to the council for a vote. Some people woke up in the morning, people who have been living there for 40 years, and they weren't able to park there anymore."
Vining said his department did not know the bike lane plan had to be approved by the City Council, which is why the elected officials are now discussing the High Street plan in general. He said the Planning Department began the first phase of the High Street project last year, starting with curb cuts and resurfacing, and no one was ever told they needed to get approval from city councilors.
''It was certainly in the category of an honest mistake," he said.
Kathy Rand, owner of the Natural Grocer on High Street, estimated that she lost 40 percent of her parking. Once the bike lanes were painted, parking was eliminated on parts of High Street in both directions.
''I think the concept is a really great one. I think in practice, where they ended up being located needed to be more carefully thought through," said Rand, who owns her High Street building. ''For me, it's trying to balance being a good neighbor and being in a location where people can access it."
On a list of answers to ''frequently asked questions" about the bike lanes, the Planning Department stated that while the parking changes may be an inconvenience to some drivers, there should be sufficient parking on side streets. The department also said that some High Street residents had already suggested that parking spots on the road be eliminated.
Josh Lehman, bicycle-pedestrian coordinator for the state Highway Department, said Newburyport may be the second community in the state to have official bike lanes. Cambridge began painting its lanes in the 1990s. Lehman said he has heard of other communities considering the lanes, but said towns do not need state approval to create them, so his department does not keep a record of them.
Lehman said communities that create bike lanes follow federal guidelines that dictate how wide the lanes must be, the logo for the lanes, and the thickness of the white lines on the road.
He said that like any other traffic pattern change, bike lanes take time to get used to.
''Whenever there's a change in people's habits, people react," he said.
Mayor Mary Anne Clancy said she has received complaints about the lanes but supports them. She said much of the confusion will dissipate once drivers and bikers get used to the lanes.
She said the city is experiencing a ''learning curve" and that the Planning Department is now doing its best to educate the public about how the lanes should be used, who is allowed to use the lanes, and how the lanes will improve traffic. The city's list of answers to frequently asked questions has been posted on the High Street website,
She said despite initial questions and problems, residents should consider the benefits of the lanes, which include fewer cars on the road and less traffic, she said.
''I keep saying to people, think about the end result," Clancy said.
Eaton also suggested that residents will warm up to the lanes once they get used to them.
''Most people woke up one day and there were these weird lines and they basically thought they had been put there by aliens from outer space," she said. ''They didn't realize it had been a five-year process. I think it's, 'Oh my goodness, this is change, and we don't know where it came from.' "
At a previous City Council meeting, the Planning Department said it would collect data about the lanes over the next year and reevaluate the lanes in September with the council.
Vining said he hopes that during that time, residents with concerns have their questions answered.
''My general feeling is that like many things, once people get used to it, it will fade into the background."
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at
Bike lane facts
The bike lanes can legally be used by pedestrians and bikers. So far, there is no local regulation regarding pedestrians using the lanes.
Bicyclists do not have to use the lanes. The bike lanes are an additional option for them. Bicycles are legally considered vehicles, so they can use regular vehicle travel lanes even when a bike lane is present.
Motorists may cross the white lines into the bike lanes in certain circumstances, including when making a right turn when there is no bicyclist in the lane or when they are exiting a driveway or parking space. Motorists may pass other motorists on the right, as long as they check the bike lane to make sure they can turn safely.
Motorists should not park in the bike lanes. The Newburyport Police Department has recommended that this situation be clarified through a new local ordinance.
The bike lanes are not too close to traffic. The city worked with a traffic engineer to make sure the alignment of the lanes meets the state's safety and design standards.
The city held several public meetings about bike lanes. The issue was discussed at a High Street public meeting in March 2001, and a citizens advisory committee met bimonthly to provide guidance on improving High Street. Another public meeting was held in April 2002, which included discussion of bicycle lanes. The most recent public meeting was held in April 2004.
From a list of frequently asked questions and answers released by the City of Newburyport 
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