No easy street to walkable downtowns

Traffic flows down Lake Shore Drive on a rainy Thursday morning. Complete Streets improvements are planned in the coming months for this route. Photo by M.J. Stafford

Before the dissolution of its police department around 2016, Silver Creek was aware — and seemingly proud — of a well earned distinction. If motorists were driving more than 30 mph in the downtown or residential area, be prepared to be pulled over.

On reputation alone, it was enough to bring a parade of brake lights upon entering village limits. Seeing others ticketed for going too fast while passing through always bolstered the belief.

Were Silver Creek police too quick to penalize motorists? Maybe, but the message was sent: how fast you are driving matters.

As Chautauqua County continues to move ahead with its many Complete Street projects that are meant to be more user friendly for cyclists and pedestrians across the region, a greater concern looms. When it comes to those who are not equipped with an accelerator, how can they be assured a more pleasant and less life-threatening experience?

During a Complete Streets forum at the Fredonia Opera House last month, that topic was addressed by James Cuozzo, New York state Department of Transportation planner. He admitted that once a project is complete that may even include flashing crosswalk signs, there often needs to be a watchdog.

“We may be able to put up a pedestrian safety action plan (with) nice fluorescent signs for your community, but the cars are still going to whiz right by,” Cuozzo said. “I think at that point you need some local enforcement … because I would probably guarantee you, if you have someone sitting there stopping people on a regular basis and being charged a hefty fine … it’s going to happen less and less at some point.”

There was always a sentiment by those who lived out of town that Silver Creek was so aggressive at ticketing due to a need for the revenue. While some of that may be true, there is no denying it made the village and its streets safer.

Since 2014 when the Complete Streets presentations hit the road visiting cities, towns and villages — led primarily by Lisa Schmidtfrederick Miller, a number of elected officials backed the concept. Seeing it through, however, has not been as easy.

That being said, there are some impressive examples underway or starting soon. In Jamestown, Washington Street is being reduced from four lanes to three in an effort to calm traffic from Fluvanna Avenue to Second Street. Lake Shore Drive in Dunkirk has greater ambitions that aim to beautify the main thoroughfare near the waterfront and would include medians.

Main Street in both Fredonia and Westfield also have made progress, but have reasons for worry when it comes to speed. U.S. Route 20 can be filled with traffic, some of it from hurried, out-of-town travelers.

Is 30 mph — or 35 mph on Lake Shore Drive in Dunkirk — too fast to be inviting for other users? Should 25 mph be the correct speed in locations where vehicles should not be dominating those going by foot or two wheels?

Washington Street in Jamestown is notoriously dangerous for those who are walking. Four lanes with traffic lights at 11 intersections have allowed for a hazardous atmosphere. It is just as similar on Main Street in the city.

DOT officials during their time at the Fredonia forum made it clear that if changes need to be made on state roads, it is best for residents to reach out to the local elected officials. “That’s the very first step in the process of moving forward,” Cuozzo said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight unless it’s a real safety concern.”

North Union Street in Olean is a role model for other areas looking to improve their downtowns. With five roundabouts and tree-lined medians, the streetscape provides a welcoming atmosphere even though it came at a price of nearly $9 million.

From all accounts, the effort has led to a rejuvenation for the struggling Cattaraugus County city. Most importantly to the economic rebound is the increased foot traffic that comes from an initiative that encourages a slower, cautious pace.

It is obvious that business districts today are not what they were 50 years ago. But the key ingredient to any rebirth includes the same formula that was taken as a given in the past: pedestrians.

If vehicles are allowed to dictate the atmosphere on major community thoroughfares, there will be fewer who walk or ride bikes. That is a key part to the destruction of downtowns.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call (716) 366-3000, ext. 253.


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