Montpelier Aims to Make Streets Safe for All

By Carl Etnier

Like many cities around the country, Montpelier touts being a walkable, bikeable community. Yet the term is merely aspirational in key parts of the city. Few streets have bike lanes, and some heavily traveled corridors don’t even have sidewalks. Space is limited, and cars take up much of the streetscape, both for driving and parking. What’s a city to do?

Montpelier’s City Council adopted a “Complete Streets Design Report” at its December 12, 2018, meeting to help answer this question. The Complete Streets mission is to make streets serve the transportation needs of all users and to recognize that streets are a valuable social space, not just a place for transportation.

In an interview in City Hall, Montpelier’s community development specialist, Kevin Casey, explained the Complete Streets ideal as “bikes, pedestrians, other vehicles, all operating in the right of way together, safely.” In low-traffic, residential streets on the west side of town, this can be accomplished with everyone sharing the same street. In streets with more—and faster—traffic, other measures are needed to reduce potential conflicts between types of street users. 

Casey emphasized that users are looking for not just some safe streets, but a citywide network. “If I’m riding a bike, I don’t want the road to change at an intersection, and all of a sudden the bike lane disappears.”

City planning director Michael Miller wrote in an email to The Bridge, “A majority of Montpelier’s roads may already be compliant [with Complete Streets design] or may only need minor adjustments.” He identified Barre Street and a portion of Elm Street as two of the city’s more “challenging” streets; they “should have no on-street parking in order to accommodate bike lanes.” Yet, as he pointed out, “both roads are heavily used for on-street parking,” so how does the city accommodate drivers who want to park on the road and cyclists who want to ride safely on the same road, while leaving room for drivers to travel at a faster pace than cyclists? 

Casey identified East State Street as another problematic street; it’s not only narrow and has parking on both sides, there’s also a retaining wall that makes widening the street perhaps prohibitively expensive. 

For situations like these, the toolkit section of the city’s Complete Streets Design report lists various ways to improve street safety, even where the ideal streetscape seems unattainable. The catalog contains space-gobbling measures such as separated paths for pedestrians and for bicycles, but also things such as the “sharrows” that have sprouted on downtown streets—painted arrows that indicate the lane is to be shared by bicycles and other vehicles. 

The toolkit also contains ways to slow down motor vehicles, from changing speed limits to narrowing lanes and installing speed humps. And it emphasizes thinking about bike parking and bus stops in planning street changes. For example, do bus stops connect with safe ways to walk to and from nearby homes and businesses?

Miller also wrote that the design report could be used to make simple, quick changes to streets. “Occasionally we may simply need to repaint lines. A road with 12-foot lanes and 2-foot shoulders could be repainted to have 10-foot lanes and 4-foot shoulders,” which can become bike lanes. 

He also said the city would consider how to achieve Complete Streets design in budgeting for the city’s capital improvement plan (CIP). “So think of a street that is identified as needing a sidewalk, and it currently does not have one. We could add that as a project to the CIP as a separate project, or we could wait until the road comes up on the CIP and increase funding to build the sidewalk at the same time as paving/reconstruction.”

The plan was funded by a $45,000 Better Connections grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and VTrans. Richard Amore oversaw the grant for DHCD. The Montpelier resident literally walks the talk of complete streets—a little over two miles each day, to and from work. In an interview at his National Life office, he said he had walked his child to school that morning on the way to work. For Amore, whose background is in architecture and community planning, Complete Streets is just one component of building more “vibrant places.” He celebrated the “Montpelier mile,” which takes 30 to 40 minutes to walk, because there are so many conversations with friends and neighbors that happen along the way. 

Amore said neighborhood safety can increase when more people are out walking and observing the streets, and making it easy for people to live in town with one less car both promotes greater financial diversity and leaves residents with more disposable income to spend at local stores.

The Agency of Transportation also sees streets as more than transportation. Jackie Cassino oversaw the grant for VTrans, and she described the funding of plans like Montpelier’s as something that has arisen in a post-Tropical Storm Irene world, where “cross-agency collaboration and pooling of funding resources is used to answer these sort of squishy problems that are not always a transportation issue and not always a land-use issue. They’re usually somewhere in the middle.”

Cassino also complimented Montpelier on bringing in Department of Public Works staff early in the complete streets planning process. She said workers who are “doing the work, maintaining the roadway day-in and day-out” have a lot of insights to offer on what is achievable. 

Now it’s up to the department to start to achieve what’s in the plan—and up to the city to fund the work.

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