Lowell Politics newsletter: April 21, 2024

Much of Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting was devoted to the need for sidewalks on Campbell Drive, a 1960s-era residential street in the Highlands that’s home to the Bailey Elementary School. The school, which was constructed in the 1990s, is set back from the road and connected to Campbell Drive by a narrow driveway squeezed between two houses, so parents and caregivers picking up students must park on Campbell Drive awaiting dismissal. They park on both sides of the road and on neighboring streets. Without sidewalks, children walking from the school to their rides, or the few who walk all the way home, must walk in the street which creates a dangerous situation.

The council asked the City Manager to study this and come back with a report but if this was an easy problem to fix it would have been done long ago since the problem that exists today is not a new one.

A couple of observations: Other than arrival and dismissal times on school days, Campbell Drive is a lightly traveled, relatively wide residential street like many others in that part of the Highlands so walking on the street (as I often do since I live nearby) does not feel dangerous. While sidewalks are generally a good thing, they are expensive to construct and so the quantity that can be installed is limited. As one resident who spoke on this issue pointed out, stretches of outer Westford Street, Stedman Street, and outer Chelmsford Street, all lack sidewalks and are far more dangerous to walk or bike on every minute of every day and probably are more in need of sidewalks than on Campbell Drive (although the speaker emphasized they did not oppose sidewalks there).

And “neighborhood schools” are not necessarily the answer. As Lowell grew through the 19th century, when new neighborhoods with new houses were constructed, the city would just plop a school in their midst. But in the 1990s when the city embarked on a massive school building program (which was available because the city had adopted a “controlled choice” school assignment program that is still in place today and still subject to US District Court supervision), the new schools were built on whatever vacant space the city could find. Those lots were not in the middle of neighborhoods but were usually on the periphery or in areas that were otherwise unbuildable (as is the case with the Bailey School). In other words, these schools were not built in places that are easy for children to get to on foot, even if they live nearby. Consequently, most parents and caregivers who do not qualify for bus transportation because they live too close to the school, will still drive their children to and from school. If the number of children riding buses is diminished, that will add more cars to the dropoff/pickup chaos.

All this is not to say that the issue at the Bailey School should be ignored. It should not, because it’s a hazardous situation. But it’s one that is likely duplicated at every school in the city. It’s also to point out that there is no quick fix and that it’s a problem of long duration. It’s important to continue to attack the problem, but it’s equally important to bring a sense of realism to the struggle.

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While we’re on the subject of road chaos, the Council’s Transportation Subcommittee had an interesting meeting back on April 2, 2024. That meeting flowed from a response to a Councilor Wayne Jenness motion that asked for a report on bike and pedestrian accidents. City Transportation Engineer Elizabeth Oltman used her report to highlight a federally mandated Vulnerable Road Users Assessment done by MassDOT.

A “vulnerable road user” or VRU, is anyone not in a vehicle who uses the road. This would be pedestrians and bicyclists mostly. The MassDOT ranked all communities in terms of their VRU risk. Lowell was tenth on that list, and most of the deaths and injuries here happened in what Oltman called “environmental justice neighborhoods,” specifically, the Acre, Lower Highlands, and Back Central. Besides conducting this study, MassDOT has followed up with grants to the city to create action plans for the relevant neighborhoods and is also assisting with “low-cost, high-benefit, quick-turnaround projects” that can help.

During the subcommittee meeting, Oltman shared some general principles worth highlighting:

  • People will walk or bike if they feel safe; if they don’t feel safe, they won’t.
  • The slower that motor vehicles go, the fewer the incidents involving vulnerable road users there are.
  • If a road is designed for traffic to move at 40 mph, simply putting up a sign that says “Speed Limit 25 mph” won’t reduce the speed on the road.
  • The city has accumulated “a lot of planning documents” but now “we have to implement” the plans.
  • On major connector roads, bike lanes must be physically separated from car travel lanes; it’s not enough to just put a line on the pavement; you have to physically separate them to create the level of safety needed to encourage bicycle usage.
  • To the question, “How hopeful are you that this will work?” Oltman replied, “our bike lanes don’t lead anywhere and people don’t feel safe riding on the ones we do have” which implies she’s not optimistic absent a major change in attitude and policy.

Perhaps those changes might be triggered by the coming UMass Lowell LINC development on the school’s East Campus. Subcommittee members (Councilors John Descoteaux, Wayne Jenness, and Vesna Nuon) specifically asked about that. Ms. Oltman said UMass Lowell planners want people who reside in the LINC area to feel safe and comfortable getting to downtown Lowell by walking and biking without feeling the need to drive there.

A major cause of the challenges we now face is a set of miscalculations made by urban planners back in the 1960s. Back then, newly affordable cars and single-family residences in the suburbs caused city dwellers to relocate. Planners assumed that the jobs held by those new suburban residents would remain in the city, so the planners sought to create high speed roadways to rapidly get the suburbanites to and from their urban jobs. In Lowell, that gave us the Lowell Connector, the Sampson Connector (which is the official name of the Thorndike-Dutton corridor), and Father Morissette Boulevard, to name a few.

The first miscalculation was that the jobs would stay in the city. They did not. Instead, they followed the workers to the suburbs. The second miscalculation was to disregard the harm these “connector roads” which were essentially multilane highways would have on the neighborhoods they passed through. Think of how Dutton Street physically separates the Acre neighborhood from downtown. Distance-wise the walk time from the National Park Visitor Center to St. Patrick’s Church is negligible, but having to cross Dutton Street requires so much thought and preplanning that you would rarely consider walking between these two logically connected places. The same experience exists going from upper Merrimack and Moody Streets to Lelacheur Field. You just don’t think about walking between the two.

Had this road design improved the experience for those driving in cars, you might ask whether the tradeoff was worth it, but that’s not the case. The promise of “high speed connector roads” mostly resulted in more traffic and longer waits than would be the case if people chose multiple routes through a standard road network, a network that would have the added benefit of creating a safe setting for people walking or riding bikes.

Finally, the whole, “I never see anyone riding bikes” attitude expressed by some is both ignorant and misleading. People don’t ride bikes in Lowell for two reasons: they don’t feel safe doing so and the bike network, such as it is, doesn’t go anywhere. There are a few random bike lanes that go from one unconnected point to another, but there is no coherent network that would support bikes as an alternative to cars for those interested in using two wheeled transport.

Between the new Lowell High School at one end of Father Morissette Boulevard and the coming LINC development at the other, the city has a chance to get this right after nearly 60 years of reinforcing a failed urban planning strategy. Hopefully the opportunity won’t be missed.

If you’re interested, the Traffic Subcommittee meeting is on the LTC YouTube channel.

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If you’re reading this early on Sunday, I’m leading a Lowell Cemetery tour today at 10am starting from the Lawrence Street entrance to the cemetery. The tour is free and will take 90 minutes. Plenty of parking is available within the cemetery. Enter “1010 Lawrence Street” in your GPS for directions.

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