The inspiring story of Hamburg, NY
Source: The New York Times
A few days ago, The New York Times told the inspiring story of an Upstate New York village that defied the Department of Transportation and created a human-scale Main Street that restored community to a downtrodden downtown. Route 62, a state highway that happens to be the Village of Hamburg's main street, is classified as an "urban principal arterial."
As such, the New York DOT proposed 12-foot travel lanes — the same width as Interstate highways — and other design details that are standard for urban arterials all across the US. Nine times out of ten — that's a conservative estimate — the car-oriented designs are accepted without question despite Context Sensitive Design guidelines and, more recently, Complete Streets laws. The results are fast-moving thoroughfares that repel people.
In the case of Hamburg, the village brought in walkability proponent Dan Burden, as Better! Cities & Towns (then called New Urban News) reported in 2009. The village rejected the state's proposal and suggested an alternative, which was put to a popular vote and supported, 4-1. The public support may have tipped the balance and the state agreed to the alternative. As the Times reported:
In fact, all of Hamburg’s Main Street was redesigned to slow vehicles, a technique known as traffic calming. Two lanes, instead of the three that had been planned, were built, and the lanes’ width was shrunk from 12 feet — highway-size ribbons that invite drivers to go fast — to 10 feet. That created more room for trees; on-street parking, which is good for businesses; and “safety lanes,” which provide room for drivers to open car doors safely and also serve as de facto bicycle lanes.
In the two years after the reconstruction, car accidents on the new road dropped by 66 percent and injuries by 60 percent.
Burden used a tape measure and found the lanes were only 9 feet wide in places. Surprisingly, tractor-trailers still use the thoroughfare and congestion and travel time through the village have decreased. That's because traffic lights were removed in favor of roundabouts. The slow-moving traffic encourages pedestrians and bicyclists, and the main street has come alive again. According to the Times:
Over four recent years, business owners, inspired by the new road, spent a total of $7 million on 33 building projects. The number of building permits rose from 15 in 2005 to 96 in 2010 and property values along Route 62 more than doubled over the same period. In 2012, the village’s Main Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which brought tax incentives that villagers hope will lead to still more development.
The project has made Hamburg more connected, boosting safety and economic development. The village is not the only community where reconstruction of car-oriented highways as complete streets has yielded big economic and social dividends. Better! Cities & Towns here profiles four municipalities from Virginia to California, and Washington State to Texas. These four suburbs, similar to Hamburg (which is six miles outside of Buffalo), have this in common: Local residents and leaders came up with their own plans, often different from transportation planners and the DOT.
These stories are happening more frequently, yet they remain outside of the norm — which is why the Times is reporting on this story. Road widenings that make walking and biking trips more difficult — even in mixed-use places — are more common. To get around this problem, new urbanists are petition US DOT for a change in the functional classification system that determines design of most major thoroughfares. As we reported:
[Transportation engineer Rick] Hall says that more specific standards are needed. Currently, if a thoroughfare is in an “urbanized area,” and is designated “arterial,” one standard applies. Since metro areas are largely suburban, that standard is geared to creating suburban, auto-oriented environments. “Suburban is the default for anything that is urbanized and not rural,” says Hall.
We'd benefit from more communities like Hamburg that defy DOT and transportation planners to create connected communities. But we'd benefit more from a system that makes more intelligent decisions on street design as a matter of course.
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