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As Kalinowsky pushes to wipe out North Street bike lanes, Pittsfield officials say they’ve made downtown safer

A look at the bike lanes of North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Josh Landes
A look at the bike lanes of North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

A petition calling on Pittsfield, Massachusetts to remove bike lanes from its main downtown thoroughfare prompted debate at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.

The petition was brought to the body by At-Large City Councilor Karen Kalinowsky. Mayor Linda Tyer’s administration responded with a lengthy presentation on the bike lanes’ impact on traffic safety since they were first rolled out in late 2020.

“In those last six months of the project, we had approximately, in those six months, we had some eight crashes. That is in 2022, the first six months of 2022, which comparing to the same period of time, that is 50% down from the same six months in 2021," said Commissioner of Public Utilities Ricardo Morales. “The worst six months in this study period were between October and March, October 2020, March of 2021, in which we had 22 crashes, and we have that same period of time after the bike lanes and road diet was implemented, and we can compare that to five crashes in that same time period with a 77% decrease in the crashes.”

That data suggests Pittsfield might now actually be safer than the state as a whole.

“We have the crashes at a state level going up from 2020 to 2021 23%," said Morales. "On a Pittsfield level, our crashes here in the city went up 19% in that same time period. And that same year, which included six months of the double buffered road diet project, we went down 53%.”

Morales had on hand a bevy on endorsements for the bike lanes from the city’s first responders.

“The consensus from the fire chief, the consensus is that the bike lanes give vehicles a place to move during the code three response," he told the council. "Before if both lanes were full of cars at a stoplight there would be a delay until the cars found a safe place to move. Now, vehicles can simply stage in the bike lane until the response has passed. A communication from County Ambulance includes a snippet here: ‘We have since discovered our trepidation to be unfounded and find the new traffic configuration to have no negative impact on our responses. And it has had some positive benefits to us. We also view it is much safer for bicycle and e-scooter riders than now that now have a much wider and safer path to travel on.’ And from Pittsfield Police: ‘These changes have had a positive impact regarding traffic incidents. The new pattern has also caused a decrease in speeding. Vehicles are no longer given the opportunity to change lanes and pass slower vehicles due to the elimination of the second lane of traffic.’”

Morales shared the results of a survey involving about 40 users of the bike lanes.

“I like the North Street bike lane: 59% agreed, 21% was neutral, and 10% disagreed, with 10% not sure or didn't know," said the commissioner. "Similarly, on the liking of the design of North Street, this takes into account all the other components aside from the bicycles themselves, aside from the bike lane, you have a 50% of the people, of the participants, agreeing, 70% being neutral, and 33% disagreeing. Further in the analysis of the results, we had 58% of the respondents confirming that they felt safer traveling on North Street and 74% confirming that they felt more comfortable while traveling on North Street.”

He also says data indicates that the bike lanes have successfully encouraged more bike riding in downtown Pittsfield.

“The first peak we saw was in September of 2021 with bicycle activity around 7,200 rides per month," said Morales. "We saw a low point in January of about 35 to 100. That low point equates to about 35 rides per day in January. During the winter months, we saw a range between 35 at its lowest and 100 trips per day at its highest, suggesting what we really knew already, my department, the city, that there are people that still for various reasons rely on bicycle for their main transportation, especially during the winter. Comparing the month of June of 2021, pre-implementation, numbers of around 1,700 rides per month, to this June with about 7,600 rides per month.”

Kalinowsky was skeptical of the data.

“You count bicycles on the sidewalk with the bicycles you find on North Street, correct?” she asked Morales.

“It is bicycle activity on North Street," he answered. "Yes.”

“Well, my belief is the people that ride in the sidewalk feel that the bike lanes are unsafe," said the councilor. "That's why they ride on the sidewalks. You can't, we talked about this. You can't count them both. If you had separated them, I would love to know the numbers. And I know you really can't do that because you only sat up there for a couple hours counting the bicyclists and multiplied your statistics in regard to that. It doesn’t really show a true representation of how many bicyclists actually utilize North Street compared to motorists, correct?”

“It's far- It's much more motorists, that's no doubt. 10,000 versus, in a day, versus around 200," said Morales. "No doubt. But we still have to make it safer for everyone.”

The former police officer said the data Morales presented didn’t square with her own anecdotal findings.

“It’s nice to say that you got input from, you know, like, the chief down to everybody," said Kalinowsky. "I'll tell you, the people I've talked to think it's dangerous up there, in regard to law enforcement, and you know-“

“In which way is it dangerous?” asked Morales.

“With the bike lanes, because of how the cars travel," said Kalinowsky. "Some cars decide to travel down the right lane, some travel not. Some cars just pull in. You know, it's great to say, oh, emergency vehicle coming down, you can just pull it in. Well, if you also have a bunch of bicyclists there, you know, hopefully they look before they- I don't know if you've ever watched, been behind a firetruck or something when-”

“I'm trying to, I'm trying to ascertain what you're saying," said Morales. "Because you just said that no bicyclists go through there, so we don’t get a bunch of bicyclists.”

“I didn't say none," said Kalinowsky. "I said, but, you know, if there is bicyclists there, how many people are paying attention? People-“

“They are," responded Morales. "The crashes, the crashes have gone down dramatically. In a year, specifically, in a year where nationally, in Pittsfield, they have all gone up. In the state.”

At-Large Councilor Pete White spoke up in defense of the bike lanes.

“I work downtown two days a week," he said. "I've found it significantly safer in feeling when having to cross the street, when having to do any business downtown. When having to park now, you have a buffer lane, that yeah, it has to be, the bike lane has to be traveling because you travel into it to park. And it's safer. If you have to parallel park, I would love to have everywhere I go a lane next to me where cars don't speed by me.”

At-Large Councilor Earl Persip said that efforts to frame the bike lanes as an invention of Commissioner Morales or the administration of Mayor Tyer were misguided.

“The state is looking for these kinds of designs," he said. "This isn't coming from the commissioner. This is coming from the state who wants to see safer roads.”

Multiple councilors said they wanted more input from North Street business owners included in further study of the bike lanes.

Kalinowsky’s petition to have North Street revert to a four-lane roadway was sent to Tyer’s desk in a 7-4 vote, with Councilors Dina Lampiasi and Patrick Kavey joining White and Persip in opposition.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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