This spring, the City of Lowell hosted Dan Burden, Director of Innovation and Inspiration for Blue Zones, an organization focused on promoting practices that can lead to longevity. One of the organization’s areas of specialty is walkability, and Burden was invited to help Lowell identify how it can become more pedestrian-friendly.
Burden met with a group of city leaders and led a walking audit of the city. A report was received a few months later. While most the document was focused on best practices and examples from other communities, it did include suggestions for improving the downtown corridor.
City Manager Mike Burns noted at a summer council meeting that not all the recommendations would be viable for Lowell. However, he was interested in making modifications to the city’s Master Plan and Downtown Master Plan to reflect the findings.
Study Reinforces Previous Placemaking Plan
The Blue Zones report isn’t the first time the City of Lowell has investigated how to make the downtown more inviting. A Downtown Placemaking Plan was drafted in 2015 to suggest wayfinding signs as well as bump outs along Main Street and other improvements.
Burden notes that the vision for bump outs made in the 2015 plan is consistent with his recommendations. Also known as curb extensions, bump outs narrow the road at intersections. The benefits include reducing the speed of traffic and shortening the space pedestrians must travel across the road. Depending on how they are structured, bump outs can reduce the length of a crosswalk from 66 feet to 22 feet.
Bump outs are also recommended as a way to clear sight lines for motorists and improve the aesthetic of the downtown. At the city’s request, during the last restriping of Main Street, MDOT painted stripes indicating potential locations for bump outs, such as in front of City Hall.
While not all the recommendations from the Downtown Placemaking Plan have been adopted, Lowell City Council did approve the purchase of 12 wayfinding signs during a meeting earlier this month. The signs will help direct people to various points in the city and are being paid for by a grant from the Lowell Area Community Fund.
Ambitious Plans for Main Street
However, the Blue Zones report for walkability goes beyond what the 2015 Placemaking Plan recommended. It suggests changes to Main Street that include adding a roundabout and creating gateways at all four entrances to the city.
In making these suggestions, Burden acknowledges they may not all be possible although they do represent the ideal. The report has this to say about Main Street improvements [sic]:
Likely Lowell will not be able to make all of the following changes, and some will fail an engineering analysis, but when applied, all will enhance the walkability, livability, prosperity, health, and worth of the community.
- Bring the Target Speed of Main Street down to 20 mph
- Colorize the center turn lane, add crossing islands, reduce the length of storage areas for turning movements
- Add curb extensions on Main Street and within two blocks of Main Street
- Add new parking on side streets, especially on Washington Street
- Convert the “B” side of Main Street and alleys into attractive places. Study Northville, Michigan for their approach to “B” side designs and operations
- Repair sidewalk sections of Main Street
- Study Main Street and Hudson for conversion to a roundabout. Provide roundabouts on your own streets first.
- Add gateways into all four quadrants of Lowell
A fifth gateway was also recommended for the bridge over the Flat River. The purpose of the gateways is to indicate to travelers that they are entering a new district in town. “A district gateway more than pays its way by making clear which portions of town are being celebrated as authentic historic, cultural or other places of emphasis,” Burden writes in the report. “Today Lowell’s best qualities are kept under cover.”
Pedestrian Crossings a Priority
While there is no way for the City of Lowell to reduce the speed limit on Main Street – that’s set by the Michigan Department of Transportation – there are other ways the city may be able to slow cars and increase pedestrian safety.
Bump outs, mentioned above, are one way to slow traffic and improve walkability. Burden also suggests the city use a uniform striping pattern to indicate crosswalks and investigate the possibility of installing an RRFB or HAWK-style crossing signal. These systems detect when pedestrians are present and stop traffic.
In the past, MDOT has expressed concern about stopping traffic on Main Street since it is a state highway. However, Burns says he has seen HAWK systems used on state highways in other communities. The city and state department have continued to discuss the matter, and in a city council meeting earlier this fall, Burns sounded optimistic about the possibility of reaching an agreement with the state on the subject of crosswalks.
Adding a median crossing island is another way to help ensure pedestrian safety. An island in the middle of Main Street by the Riverwalk may help in two ways: reducing traffic speed as well as providing a safe place for pedestrians to wait while opposing traffic clears. However, like other Main Street suggestions, any change to the road will need to be approved by MDOT.
Suggested Changes off Main Street
Burden also makes some suggestions for the roads off Main Street. He recommends adding traffic calming features such as bump outs to the neighborhood streets one block off E. Main St. These would help reduce speeds and improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Then, in one of the more novel suggestions, Burden says Lowell might want to take a page from South Beach in Miami and look for ways to zone and incentivize an entertainment district. “An appropriate side street could be selected for conversion to a people only street [for] certain hours a day, for events, and weekends,” Burden writes. While the Riverwalk already serves this purpose to some extent, Burdens adds, “There are added long-term reinvestment benefits to converting an actual street for this use.”
While the walkability report is non-binding and some suggestions will likely never be implemented, its purpose is to help start the conversation. Burden concludes his report by stating that the next step for the city is to gather community feedback before putting any plan into action.