Coping with the real world

In the idyllic world of traffic planners, bicyclists languidly pedal through downtown streets, the wind blowing in their hair, waving to shopkeepers, as a few cars roll silently by at a respectful distance.

In the real world, downtown bicycling is anything but languid. People in their cars are often in too much of a hurry, bicyclists (wearing helmets, of course) deal with rearview mirrors missing them by inches, drivers making unannounced turns, car doors opening unexpectedly in front of them. Pausing to wave at others puts the bicyclist at risk. And those few cars are, in fact, a lot of cars.

Reducing Main Street in downtown Ashland from three lanes to two lanes in order to add bike lanes and widen sidewalks is more likely prompted by the idyllic world view than by the real world. Build it and they will come: Yes, there likely would be more bicyclists through downtown Ashland. But, build it and they will go away: No, the number of cars on the street are unlikely to diminish.

What's more likely to diminish is the relatively smooth flow of traffic through downtown. It ain't perfect now, but it also seems to us not to be terribly broken. A driver passing through downtown can expect to stop a couple of times, either at a light or to allow pedestrians to cross. But it's generally a rather unremarkable passage that is rarely held up for any noticeable period of time.

Because there are three lanes, the traffic is more dispersed, which helps lessen the visual impact of the steady flow of traffic and lessens emissions related to stopping and starting. It also provides more continuity for drivers trying to avoid the occasional delivery truck and frequent parallel parkers.

To be sure, making downtown more bicycle and pedestrian friendly is an admirable goal. But admirable, like idyllic, often runs head-on into reality. And the reality is, barring $8 a gallon gasoline, there will continue to be a lot of cars going through downtown.

Like a previous "road-diet" plan that would have reduced the main northern entry to Ashland from two lanes to one, this plan runs the risk of making the city seem more car-centric, rather than less, by creating backups, greater congestion and more frustration with traveling through the city.

That stands not only to create an obstacle for tourists, but also for city residents, who would find their main passageway from one end of town to the other more clogged with traffic. Beyond that, would two lanes of heavier traffic, combined the existing curbside parking, really make for an enhanced atmosphere for bicyclists and pedestrians?

Converting Main Street from three lanes to two downtown is expected to cost nearly $400,000. City officials should think long and hard about what they will get for their money.

Share This Story