Calming Traffic on Neighborhood Streets

In response to our post last month on targeted projects to support walking and cycling, a resident asked us to add traffic calming on Plummer Avenue to the list of recommended projects to enhance safety for pedestrians and cyclists. Like many of the streets that run from High Street down to Merrimack and Water Streets, Plummer Avenue experiences vehicle speeds that conflict with safe pedestrian movement. This is especially concerning because the sidewalks on many of our neighborhood streets are both too narrow for two people to walk abreast and in extremely poor condition, so walking in the street is more comfortable and feels safer.

From Storey Avenue through the South End, Newburyport has a street pattern that carries traffic efficiently across the city and distributes it to the neighborhoods. This simplified map shows the arterials that carry the through traffic – Merrimac St, High St and Low St – and the principal cross streets connecting them to each other and to the smaller neighborhood streets:

Many of these cross streets are much wider than they need to be. Newburyport’s minimum design standards for residential streets specify a minimum pavement width of 24 feet for “local” residential streets (streets that provide direct access to abutting properties with no through traffic) and 28 feet for “collector” streets (connecting local streets to arterials). However, these standards are primarily intended for streets in new residential subdivisions where vehicles can be parked off the street in private driveways and garages. Where the development pattern does not allow for off-street parking, widths of up to 36 feet may be appropriate, allowing for two 11-foot travel lanes and two 7-foot parking lanes. Often, though, the streets in the city’s older neighborhoods are narrower, sometimes having room for only one parking lane – or none at all.

The streets that run between High and Merrimac and between High and Low are classified as local streets, but in reality they also serve as minor collectors, bringing drivers from the arterials to the smaller neighborhood streets and also providing routes between the arterials. Several of these cross streets between High and Merrimac are significantly wider than the 36 feet needed for two-way traffic and on-street parking:

StreetIntersectionPavement WidthPavement > 36′
Pavement widths measured from City’s MIMAP online GIS viewer.

These streets are as wide as, or even wider than, the arterial streets which they intersect. For example, Tyng Street is 45 feet wide at its intersection with Merrimac Street, yet Merrimac Street at that location measures only 33 feet curb to curb. At the other end, Tyng Street has about the same paved width as High Street even though it carries only a fraction of the daily traffic.

Tyng Street, near Munroe Street, is 45 feet from curb to curb –
the equivalent of 3 travel lanes between 2 parking lanes.

Many of these streets have intersections that are controlled by four-way stops, which help to keep speeds down. However, where stop signs don’t exist, the straight and overly wide streets encourage speeding. These elements of Newburyport’s street network that contribute to its efficiency in distributing traffic and providing access thus also create challenges for pedestrians of all ages.

On most local streets in Newburyport there’s no reason to drive faster than 20 mph. But simply reducing speed limits – and then attempting to enforce the reduced limits – has little if any effect on driver behavior. Drivers get their primary cues from the physical environment, and in many cases the design of our streets accommodates speeds that are faster than appropriate for residential neighborhoods. If we want to encourage walking and cycling, and if we want pedestrians of all ages to be able to walk safely, we need to reduce vehicle speeds on neighborhood streets, and the most effective way to do that is to make targeted physical changes to streets when warranted.

There are many proven techniques for reducing traffic speeds by adding physical elements to a street. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) presents a comprehensive catalog of such speed reduction mechanisms in its Urban Street Design Guide. Some of these approaches could be appropriate for residential streets in Newburyport: for example, the images below show a speed hump (which can incorporate a raised crosswalk), a curb extension or “pinchpoint” (such as we have downtown on State St and now on High St near the High School), and a chicane.

An added benefit of horizontal measures such as curb extensions and chicanes is that they can provide space for amenities like landscaping. Here are two examples from Seattle showing how chicanes can be added to existing neighborhood streets to calm traffic as well as add greenery:

These chicanes were added to the streets without disrupting existing drainage patterns through the inclusion of runnels next to the curb. This is thus a very low-cost strategy with a direct impact on vehicle speeds.

Getting back to Plummer Avenue, while the pavement width isn’t excessive as for some other cross streets (it’s 29 feet at Christopher Street, almost the minimum for residential collector streets), the lack of intersection controls and the presence of the entrance to Atkinson Common may warrant a physical intervention to help slow down traffic. The most straightforward option would be to modify the crosswalk next to the park entrance. The existing crosswalk does not comply with current accessibility standards and should therefore be upgraded in any case. Two options, which could be implemented separately or together, are (1) to extend the curbs on both sides to visually narrow the street and (2) to make the crosswalk a raised crosswalk. Here are a few examples of raised crosswalks, with and without curb extensions::

Even where traffic calming isn’t an issue, some of the extra pavement could be reclaimed for stormwater management using natural systems. We’ll talk about that in another post.

Targeted Projects to Support Walking and Cycling in Newburyport

In December 2020 Newburyport Livable Streets submitted to the City a list of potential projects to enhance safety for pedestrians and cyclists. We encourage the City administration to consider these ideas for funding through the State’s Shared Streets and Spaces grant program or through other sources.

Our recommended projects include (in no particular order):

  • High Street at March’s Hill: Upgrade the pedestrian signals at March’s Hill and install temporary treatments along that wide part of High Street to pilot the concept plan that was presented in September 2019.
  • Low Street at North Atkinson Street/Colby Farm Lane: Address traffic and pedestrian safety issues at this intersection to support increased use stemming from new residential development as well as users of the recycling center, yard waste facility, and trails.
  • Merrimac Street at Route 1: Improve pedestrian and bike safety on Merrimac Street at Summer and Winter Streets.
  • Hale Street: Pilot traffic-calming measures and bicycle/pedestrian accommodations, using flex posts and paint to test improvements before making them permanent.
  • Temporary pedestrian/bike paths: Install temporary pedestrian/bike paths (delineated with flex posts) along wide streets that lack sidewalks and bike lanes including Ferry Road and Moseley Avenue.
  • Crosswalk upgrades:
    • Signals and curb extensions: Install pedestrian-activated signals and/or curb extensions at crosswalks on Merrimac Street at the bottom of Kent Street, on Water Street near The Poynt and at the Tannery, and on High Street.
    • Merrimac Street at Merrimack Landing/Market Landing Park: Improve the visibility and safety of the crosswalk next to the Green Street parking lot driveway.
    • Crosswalk lighting: Provide better lighting at crosswalks generally, such as motion- or thermal-detection lights. (Lighting of crosswalks is a general safety concern particularly in the winter in areas throughout the City.)
  • Harris Street bicycle contraflow: Implement a “contraflow” route on Harris Street enabling cyclists to ride from State Street back to Washington Street. This would allow cyclists to avoid the busier downtown streets and could be a pilot for other one-way streets.
  • Downtown bike corrals: Install on-street bike corrals in select downtown locations.

Are there other projects out there that we should be thinking about? Let us know!

Merrimack Valley Active Transportation Plan

The Merrimack Valley Active Transportation Plan will create a coordinated regional approach to bicycling, walking and other human-powered transportation, including connections to transit.

The Merrimack Valley Planning Commission has scheduled five virtual Public Listening Sessions during September to provide opportunities for residents to provide input into the plan. Meetings have been developed with a geographic focus to allow for more inter-community connections. However, everyone is welcome to join the meeting that best works for their schedules.

The meeting focusing on the coastal communities of Amesbury, Newbury, Newburyport and Salisbury will take place on Thursday, September 3, at 7:00 pm. Click here for details on how to join the meeting (and information about the other four sessions),

NLS Letter Supporting Hale Street Improvements

Following up on the February 4 community meeting, Newburyport Livable Streets has written a letter (here) to the Newburyport City Council in support of funding to conduct a survey of the 1.7-mile road corridor and to engage an engineering firm to prepare a concept plan. The letter was sent to the Council on March 9, signed by 22 NLS members and other residents. However, residents are now responding to our March 4 Facebook post asking to have their names included (11 today), and so we will forward these additional names to the Council on or about March 25.

Hale Street Pedestrian & Bike Improvements

On February 4, NLS hosted a community meeting about safety issues and potential improvement strategies for Hale Street. City Engineer Jon-Eric White presented concepts to make the road safer for walkers and bicyclists getting from the West End and Squires Glen neighborhoods to schools, recreation, and the downtown. About 40 residents and City officials attended the meeting and discussed their concerns and priorities.

A video of the full meeting is online at the PortMedia YouTube channel here.

Jon-Eric White’s full presentation is posted on the Department of Public Services website here.

TSAC Meeting – Thursday, February 13 @ 4:00pm

A meeting of the City’s Traffic Safety Advisory Committee is scheduled for Thursday, February 13, at 4:00 pm in the Mayor’s Conference Room on the 2nd floor of City Hall. Topics on the agenda will include updates on the High Street Safe to Routes safety improvement project and the High Street re-striping project.

Funding for our 2019 programs has been provided by the New England Grassroots Environment Fund.