Lowell Week in Review: May 4, 2014

Here’s my review of political events in Lowell this past week:

For Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Rodney Elliott and Councilor Rita Mercier filed a joint motion to abolish the bike lanes that were installed on Father Morissette Boulevard last summer. This prompted a big turnout by local bicyclists at the meeting (as well as a frenetic few days of social media activity). No sooner had the meeting commenced then Rita was scrambling to abandon the bike lane motion. She immediately moved to suspend the rules but Councilor Bill Martin objected to the suspension at least until the Mayor was done issuing a few citations at the start of the meeting. Once that was done, councilors agreed to move the bike lane motion to the top of the agenda.

Councilor Mercier spoke first and immediately moved to amend the motion to send the matter to the City Manager for further study rather than abolish the bike lanes outright. She explained her course correction by saying this motion was more of a “test motion” than a “real motion” with the test being to see if anyone was interested in the bike lanes enough to protest their removal since she had never seen anyone on a bicycle actually using the lanes. Some might call her explanation revising history; someone on Facebook called it “backpedalling.”

Mayor Elliott spoke next. A couple of things that he said – “We run the city” and something about people who are “born, raised and will die here” – have garnered a lot of attention. More on that in a bit.

When I watch City Council meetings I take notes on the computer. As councilors and other meeting participants speak, I capture what I’m able to and try to summarize the rest because although I’m a fast typist, people talk faster. My notes are intended to give a sense of what happened at the meeting and not be a verbatim transcript of what was said. However, because of the attention being paid to Mayor Elliott’s remarks on bike lanes, I thought a stenographic transcript would be best so last night I listened to his remarks on the LTC meeting replay until I got a full and accurate record. Here is exactly what he said on bike lanes, from start to finish:

Beginning of Mayor Elliott’s remarks on bike lanes

These bike lanes have been in place for approximately nine months now and with the exception of seeing cyclists here I haven’t seen one since they’ve been in place since last August. That doesn’t mean that I’m there all the time, nor do I think they’re not being used very infrequently. I’m not opposed to cyclists. People can cycle in the city. Clearly we want them to cycle in the city. I filed a motion a number of years ago to put a couple of bike racks downtown because people called me on it.

I thank all the individuals. We’ve sent many emails. I know there was something Tweeted out and put on Facebook regarding this issue and I do appreciate your input. I work for all the people in this city but I also am bringing a message from people that support me and that see me and that ask me to do something about the bike lanes, that they’re a safety issue, they’re clearly underutilized if utilized at all and that’s why I filed the motion and spoke to Councilor Mercier on it. Not because we don’t want people in the city. It’s a safety issue. I also think it was a plan that was rolled out poorly. People in the city didn’t expect it. On some roads people, bikes, are allowed to drive their bikes right down the middle of the road – major thoroughfares. Merrimack Street, Westford Street. The culture in the city is not as such that people are accustomed to having bicycles ride down the middle of the streets. We raise our kids to stay out of the streets. Don’t ride your bike in the middle of the street. So drivers have enough distractions and bicycles are clearly one of . . . They can travel the roadways. This particular plan is very, very confusing. There were construction barrels down the middle of these roads when it was rolled out. Construction barrels. People in this city do not know what to do and that’s why I filed the motion to get rid of them. Not because we don’t like, want, appreciate anyone riding their bicycle in the city. Was it a mistake? Yes it was. It was $30,000 of taxpayer money. We can’t paint sidewalks and stripe lines in the streets. Maybe we should have looked at those.

That being said, maybe bike lanes are better in some parts of the country. You can barely use them five months here. That doesn’t mean, again, people can’t come and take their bikes in the city. So I’m all for sending this back to the manager to have another study. I think the people have studied it for nine months and they have safety issues and concerns and there are traffic congestion issues. Ask someone that travels there every day. So I will support the amendment, or change to send it to the City Manager because I don’t oppose compromise at all whatsoever. But if there’s a safety issue to this and it’s not the right place in that city then it doesn’t belong there.

I understand this Speck Report recommends cycling and walkability. That’s all good. Lowell is a Green Community. I supported those initiatives. But sometimes what does an urban planner know about the city when he spends less than a month here. We run the city. The city councilors do. The people run the city and we carry their message, their voice for them and that’s what I did. I understand that we’ll take a look at this, we’ll take another look at this but I didn’t think chickens were a good idea the last time, either, and I stand firm on that. So sometimes cities are all different. Some things work for Cambridge or Somerville but they may not work in Lowell. That doesn’t mean that we’re bad people or that we’re trying to take a step backward. This city moves forward every single day by those that are born, raised and will die here and will continue to want to make the city a better place to live. Just because we have concerns about safety doesn’t mean that we’re taking a step backwards. In fact, I think we’re moving a step forward knowing the traffic congestion, traffic patterns and safety issues in the city. That’s the reason why I brought it forward.

Thank you, Mr. Vice Chair.

End of Mayor Elliott’s remarks on bike lanes

So there it is. Draw your own conclusions on meaning and intent (and feel free to use the above transcript as you see fit). My view on this bike lanes issue is that while the current design and rollout could have been done better, the poor planning took place five decades ago when the city adopted a planning philosophy that stressed speeding car-bound workers from their downtown jobs to their suburban style homes as quickly as possible. This gave us a the Lowell Connector, the Sampson Connector (Thorndike and Dutton Streets) and Father Morissette Boulevard which all served to isolate downtown Lowell from other parts of the city because these roads resemble super highways (which the Lowell Connector is) more than inviting, easily crossed, city streets. I think we should look back to before the 1960s to a city that was more dependent on walking and riding buses to shop and get to work. Doing that would do more to enliven downtown businesses than many other initiatives now under consideration.

Regarding the politics of it all, I believe that people in the city I’d call conservative (both in their politics and in their view of life) see bike lanes, like they saw backyard chickens and moving the city-owned Nativity Scene off of city-owned property, as examples of people from someplace other than here who suddenly show up thinking they’re smarter than us and who then try to force their ways on us. Another characteristic of this mindset is a preference for anecdote over evidence, so one or two people calling to complain about bike lanes outweigh reams of data and expert analysis. Experts are just other people from somewhere other than here who think they’re smarter than us. This not only breeds resentment but also a sort of everyman approach to the mechanics of government. Everyone is qualified to be a traffic engineer or a parking analyst. This is the mindset that prevailed in last November’s city election and, because elections have their consequences, we’re seeing this approach play out with each successive council meeting.

A word of caution to the bike enthusiasts who are exalting in their success in turning back Tuesday’s assault: Sending this to the city manager for further study was just a tactical retreat by those who want to undo the bike lanes. This council will never embrace bike lanes so the only way to get them to back off from outright abolition is to extend your activism into the future. Make sure last Tuesday isn’t the last time councilors see you and, more to the point, your bike.


Before Tuesday’s council meeting, the economic development subcommittee had a meeting on downtown parking. Although I didn’t post any notes about the subcommittee meeting, I watched most of it. Here’s how I see this issue: Certain downtown business owners, led by fellow downtown business owner Councilor and Chair of Economic Development Subcommittee Corey Belanger don’t want to charge people to park curbside downtown after 4 pm on weekdays or at all on weekends. (Currently, the city’s parking ordinance requires paying for curbside parking until 6 pm on weekdays and from 8 am until 6 pm on Saturdays although the city does not enforce during these extra hours). However, as soon as you stop charging and ticketing for curbside parking, downtown residents and workers gobble up all the spaces which eliminates curbside parking spaces for potential customers of the businesses. So the dilemma is, how to you provide free parking but only to customers at downtown businesses? Rather than keep talking about this, the subcommittee at its next meeting should announce its plan for doing that and get the city to try it out. It’s as simple as that.


Councilor Corey Belanger is so enthused about the prospects for a downtown hotel on the banks of the Concord River at East Merrimack Street that he’s already offering would-be hotel developer Dave Daly a property tax break. Corey seemed to be well-schooled in the reasons why this hotel would be such a success: He explained that the Hilton Hotel with its 252 rooms was far too big for downtown Lowell but that the Inn and Conference Center with its 30 guest rooms is far too small. This new hotel, Corey explained, would be sized “just right.” That prompted someone on Facebook to suggest naming it the Goldilocks Hotel – Not too big, not too small, but just right. If any developer wants to spend his own money on his own property building a hotel in downtown Lowell, I’m all for it and will wish him well. But before we start giving away city tax breaks, let’s see some analysis from reputable firms that show where the guests necessary to make the place a financial success would be coming from. Otherwise this is just another page out of the lottery ticket school of economic development.


Tuesday at 5 pm was the deadline for Democratic and Republican candidates to submit their nomination signatures to City Hall for certification. The Election Office has a month to certify the signatures and then the individual candidates must deliver the certified signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office. Mike Sheehan and Brian Donovan remain the only candidates to have created campaign committees with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Note to other candidates: Get that done this week before you run into a snafu with fund raising or expenditures that will yield unneeded negative publicity. Friday night at the Khmer Post USA celebration which was held in the 18th district and attended by 350 people, only two candidates were there: Ratha Paul Yem and Rady Mom. They and their supporters sat at adjacent tables. The only interchanges I saw were cordial.

That’s it for this week.

8 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: May 4, 2014

  1. Jack Moynihan says:

    As always, a thoughtful and well written commentary. Thank you, once again, Mr. Howe.

  2. Brian says:

    Great recap. I feel like a broken record but…

    I would tweak, but not twerk, the dilemma about parking. It’s not about providing free parking to customers of downtown businesses. It’s more about making sure there are enough of the best spots(on-street) available for customers of downtown businesses.

    Enforcing parking policy until 8-9pm for on-street parking and offering free parking in the garages for the first hour to 1.5 hrs will both discourage residents and workers from parking on-street and encourage more visitors to the downtown. Free parking in the garages for the first hour to 1.5hrs would have to be heavily marketed at first to be effective.

    NOTE: The only major restaurant in downtown Lowell that has parking info on their website is Cobblestones.

    Downtown does need a hotel and I think can support one with 75-125 rooms. Even if the Council is to give a tax break to a developer C. Belanger shouldn’t have shown his hand so early. For someone who cares so much about downtown business(self interest) he sure knows how to screw the pooch.

  3. DickH says:

    Brian – your parking plan is exactly what is needed. Too bad the council can’t be as decisive.

  4. Joe S. says:

    Having spent a few days in Naples, FL this past week brought back some memories of the push to return the double lane traffic to FMB. Although “old” Naples is an attractive area, Highway 41 is a 6-lane (and sometimes 8-lane) thoroughfare through the town. And that is an additional traffic pipeline to Highway 75 a couple of miles east of the city.

    It was disconcerting to see a few people try to run across the multi-lanes of highway 41, as the speed limit was 45, 50 and 55 mph in various locations. Lowell should make sure that FMB remains a city street.

    But despite the atrocity of the multi-lane throughway, they had an interesting design of bike lanes (although I never saw them used). The bike lane appeared to be a little-too-narrow (maybe 4 ft.) running aside the curbing, except where the road expanded to a right-turn lane. With the high speed roadway, the right-turn lane started a few hundred feet before each intersection (or major driveway) and was preceded by a sign to indicate the bicylists’ right-of-way, but then the bike lane had a section of dotted lines to allow the cars to enter the right-turn lane. With the lower speed of FMB (hopefully NGT 30 mph), it seems that the parking lane could be terminated about 150 ft before an intersection, and a similar right-turn lane created, with a similar permitted entryway across the bike lane. Although that still may leave an issue with left-turning traffic creating a bottle-neck for the single lane car traffic, it would seem to eliminate much of the confusion being attributed to the bike lanes.