WooVoice #8: Jerry Powers, Walk-Bike Advocate

There is no such thing as “retirement” for Jerry Powers.  After a long career as an engineer, Jerry has found his current passion in making Worcester a better place to live.  His civic activism manifests in many forms – organizing his local neighborhood association near Columbus Park, dredging out tons of invasive weeds in Coes Pond through the Coes Zone group and attending public hearings to shape street designs that support walking and biking in the city.  He had a dream of bike paths crisscrossing the city. When he met Karin Valentine Goins, another walk-bike advocate, about six years ago, they naturally became a team to create the advocacy group, WalkBike Worcester.   The group has grown through word-of-mouth to over 150 email members and 560 facebook likes.  15 to 25 people on average attend WalkBike’s monthly meetings to plan how to make Worcester more accessible for walkers and bikers.

What would it take to change Worcester from an automobile-centric city to a city that could be walkable and bikeable? One thing is clear:  We need some major road diets here.  Jerry explains that a safe road has travel lanes measuring not more than 10 feet.  Many times, the amount of lanes a road has is just over-kill. Think Mill Street. Here is something truly counterintuitive: The more we build our streets for cars, the more cars we will have on the roads.  The technical term I have since learned to explain this phenomenon is called “induced demand.” 

What is “Walkability”

“Walkability means making a place where people want to walk.  It’s not about having a flat sidewalk.  It’s about having an area where people feel safe, where it’s interesting and where people actually want to walk, not a piece of concrete that gets them from point A to point B.  We are not doing a good job in the city with that.  For example, if you look at Myrtle Street from McGrath Highway over to Main Street which was repaved last year, all they did was pave it and put in smooth sidewalks.  There are no street trees, no benches, no bike racks, no bike lanes, nothing there and this will be part of the theater district.  The city has not figured out how to make streets walkable.  They are still thinking, “If the sidewalk is smooth and meets ADA requirements, what more do you want?” But that’s not walkability.”

Walkability in the canal district

Water Street in a quiet moment.  One can see the designated bike lanes on the street and the mature street trees on the sidewalk.

Water Street in a quiet moment.  One can see the designated bike lanes on the street and the mature street trees on the sidewalk.

Compare these two sections of Harding Street.  The photo on the bottom is Harding Street before the upcoming renovation.  It is one way, wide (good for speeding, dangerous traffic) with no bike lanes.  The photo above is also Harding Street but this section promotes safe passage - two way, narrower travel lanes and designated bike lanes.

"Walkability is the canal district with fairly narrow streets done in a way that makes people want to walk in that area.  They have plenty of parking, trees, bike lanes.  There are accommodations for cars but it is still a neighborhood where people want to get out and walk."

Walkability ideas for Shrewsbury Street

"Shrewsbury Street is semi-successful.  It has a lot of businesses and the wonderful green meridian strip going up in the middle through it, but it is still a four lane highway. People still drive 45 on it… no bike lanes.  They have put trees in.  You could take away a lane in each direction and put a bike lane in.  With the additional space, you could widen sidewalks and make room for seating for people outside the restaurants.  The sidewalks there now are wide enough for a sidewalk but not wide enough for patio dining on a sidewalk. That would be ideal.  At a minimum, we should have 10' travel lanes. Pedestrian scale lighting, crosswalk signal lights, reduced speed limits and light signal pedestrian preference would make people feel safer."

Downtown walkability

"Worcester was booming in the ‘50s.  People left not because of a defect in the city but because we built all these roads that drew them away to Shrewsbury and Holden.  They moved out of the city.  We had left behind the people who chose to stay.  It shows in what happened.  We built these malls outside the city. Changing times, people are moving back to the cities and we are on the edge of a huge resurgence."

"The WBDC had a hearing for the downtown redevelopment.  They were talking about all the wonderful things they were going to do.  Patting themselves on the back, they mentioned Med City, the DCU Center and how City Square is coming back.  When I got up to speak as a walkability-bikeability advocate, I said, “I hope we do a better job in the future.  You mention these buildings.  They are a wonderful addition to the downtown area, but they’re not walkable.  They’re big, blank faces that don’t make the city walkable.”  One of the guys on the panel said, “Yeah, we’ve talked to Allen Fletcher about that.”  Even the new apartment buildings downtown, if you look at them, Front Street has some retail but the rest is going to be parking garages and apartments.  So, it’s not going to be much in the way of walkability."

On the new design for Main Street

"Downtown Main Street from the old courthouse to the new courthouse now is a highway.  It’s four lanes and carries a tremendous amount of through traffic.  The city is getting ready to rebuild the street.  The city is turning it into three lanes with a turning lane.  There’s no loss for anyone including the motorists in terms of time.  The benefits: 1) you now have bike accommodation and a better experience for pedestrians.  When you will go to cross Main Street, you will have only one lane of traffic in each direction rather than two lanes of traffic in each direction.  That is far safer for pedestrians.  If it is perceived as slower, perhaps those who use it as a cut through will choose an alternative route.  That’s not a bad thing either.  When we had our design hearing on it, there were mainly businesses who spoke against it.  They were concerned about the construction impact on their businesses. They were concerned about a perceived loss of parking spaces.  They were concerned about the bi-level sidewalks the city is proposing for downtown.  After the design hearing in November, some of us Walk-Bike activists and Representative Mary Keefe got together with some of the downtown folks and started meeting on a regular basis.  Let’s talk about your concerns because we share the same concerns.  We don’t want to see parking spaces go away. We don't feel the bi-level sidewalks help anyone particularly the disability community."

Bilevel sidewalks are the city's answer to ADA requirements of having a slope graded no more than 2%.  These sidewalks split into two levels and place bollards to prevent people from falling off the first level.  These sidewalks make it impossible for wheel chair mobility since handicap vans are forced to drop their ramps right up to the bollards.  The only way to have ramp access is for the vans to move out into the street.  Walk bike advocates are urging the city to apply for a waiver or raise the street up eight inches.

Bilevel sidewalks are the city's answer to ADA requirements of having a slope graded no more than 2%.  These sidewalks split into two levels and place bollards to prevent people from falling off the first level.  These sidewalks make it impossible for wheel chair mobility since handicap vans are forced to drop their ramps right up to the bollards.  The only way to have ramp access is for the vans to move out into the street.  Walk bike advocates are urging the city to apply for a waiver or raise the street up eight inches.

Parking lots as teeth missing in your smile

"We are concerned about the middle section of Main Street.  Across the street from the new courthouse is a half a mile of parking lots.  We can’t just fix Main Street and ignore that.   How do we make it that people want to walk there?  Down at one end, you’ve got Armsby Abbey and a few other places.  Down at the other end, you’ve got a lot with the theater but how do you get people to want to walk between the two?  How do you make that attractive?  There are a lot of empty storefronts and the city can encourage the development of those sites, make those buildings really exciting and viable.  What about the places where the buildings have been torn down?  We use the analogy of mouth without a tooth for the parking lot next to the Denholm building across from the theater.  When I got up to speak, I said, “You compare that to a tooth missing in your face, I’d say, down in front of the New Courthouse, you need a whole new set of dentures!”  It’s a huge amount of ugly space filled with surface parking lots that doesn’t make people want to walk. If nothing else, a six foot fence with shrubs in front of it, SOMETHING!" 

Across the new courthouse on Main Street, these parking lots are like "dentures in a smile."  Who wants to walk past this?

Across the new courthouse on Main Street, these parking lots are like "dentures in a smile."  Who wants to walk past this?

The importance of trees

"Trees are tremendously important.  There is a theory that says in our evolution, we came out of the forests and became borderland species.  We lived between the savannas and the forests.  We feel best when we can walk where there are trees near us but we are not completely enclosed.  In addition to environmental and storm water benefits, trees also calm traffic and make people feel safer.  More and more people are interested in shade, wanting to get out of the sun.  Having trees gives people the opportunity to be in a shady spot.  I was recently at the city manager’s office.  He has a picture hanging on his wall of downtown around 1900.  It’s a bustling, horse and carriage, trolley place and every storefront downtown had awnings that came out over the sidewalks.  It was what drew people there.  People liked that.  We’ve lost that.  People want to feel that kind of safety.  You can capture that with trees and active storefronts."

Designing our streets for people, not cars

"The more you accommodate traffic, the more traffic you will draw.  If you build roads not to get from one faraway town to another faraway town, not as a highway but as a way to get to a destination like downtown, then you are not going to have a problem with traffic because the only ones driving downtown will be people with a destination in mind." 

Three “E”s of Enforcement, Education and Engineering to make our streets safer

"Enforcement: people who go too fast, go over the yellow lines, people who drive and drink need to be ticketed.  The problem with enforcement is that it is a temporary fix. You can give out tickets on Mill Street to people who are going fast but tomorrow, they’ll still be going fast. The only time they will slow down is if they know there is a police officer over there enforcing it.  We don’t have the resources or the will to have police officers on every street ticketing.  So, we need to re-engineer the streets. Another part is education.  Everyone needs education – the drivers, the pedestrians. Everyone needs to understand better for their own safety.  Even if you have the right, you need to be aware for your own safety.  Don’t be texting.  Don’t be talking on the phone.  Don’t be just thinking you are going to be safe because you have the right of way."

"For engineering: All city arterial and sub arterial streets need travel lanes, bike lanes where possible, street trees, bike racks and in thickly settled area with high pedestrian potential, we should be looking at pedestrian scale lighting, pedestrian friendly signal lights and speed limits."

 Dream of building bike paths within the city

Wouldn’t it be nice if I wanted to ride on the Blackstone River Bikeway or the Central Mass Rail Trail that I could get on those trails from my house, not have to put my bike on a car!

Jerry's vision of a Beaverbrook bike path

You could go from Lovell Street to Newton Hill on a bike path without any major rebuilding.
Jerry and I checked out the route of his envisioned bike path.  The path would begin at Beaverbrook Parkway near Lovell Street.  See here that Beaverbrook is covered up with brush and weeds on the right of the photo.  This road near Thayer Street is a private road.

Jerry and I checked out the route of his envisioned bike path.  The path would begin at Beaverbrook Parkway near Lovell Street.  See here that Beaverbrook is covered up with brush and weeds on the right of the photo.  This road near Thayer Street is a private road.

Then we head towards May Street and continue past the Big Y over towards the Beaverbrook playgrounds.

Then we head towards May Street and continue past the Big Y over towards the Beaverbrook playgrounds.

Jerry's bike path would extend towards Foley Stadium and skirt around it towards Pleasant Street.  See Newton Hill towering in the background.  The path could be go all the way to its entrance.

Jerry's bike path would extend towards Foley Stadium and skirt around it towards Pleasant Street.  See Newton Hill towering in the background.  The path could be go all the way to its entrance.

 Dangerous fast driving on Pleasant and Mill Streets

"Go over to Pleasant Street.  The cars go everywhere from driving on the center of the road to the curbing.  It is a dangerous procedure to cross Pleasant Street. People drive all over the street and at excessive speeds.  Most drivers will tell you that Pleasant Street is a four lane road but it’s not.  Because we don’t bother to line it and tell drivers where they should be driving, drivers think of it as a four lane highway.  When you have a four lane highway, people are going to go 45 miles an hour.  If you don’t believe me, go over to Mill Street and watch the police officers giving out tickets."

You can’t help driving fast on Mill St. My wife lectures me. She says,” How are you going to feel if you get a ticket?” But it’s our instinct and our brains tell us it’s a perfectly safe road to go 55 miles per hour. It’s too wide and needs to be redesigned.

Advocating for a Complete Streets program

"Complete Streets means accommodation for all users.  The street when it is done should be done that it accommodates cyclists, pedestrians and motorists, everybody.  If I live on a quiet single residential street with no sidewalks, does that mean that that street is not complete without sidewalks and bike lanes? No!  If the traffic numbers on that street are very low,  and if there is plenty of room for people to walk on the street, bike on the street and cars, that is fine.  That is a complete street.  It doesn’t mean you need sidewalks or bike lanes everywhere.  You need to look at each street and ask “what can we fit into that street within the confines of the street as well?”  Arterials and sub arterials would be the first ones we would look at.  Ideally, whenever the city does paving, they re-do the street to accommodate all users as best they can."

 Questioning our priorities

"It is sad to hear that we are going to spend 17 million dollars of local money for repaving roads but when you ask for rapid flashing beacons, you are told there is no money for it.  (Rapid flashing beacons are the bright yellow lights that people hit when they want to cross the crosswalks).  WPI wanted to put three there on the public street. The city councilors on the committee said, “Well, they’re your students.  You should put the lights in”.  WPI said, “Well, how about if we split it with you?  We’ll pay for one light. You pay for two”.  City said, “No, you pay for them all. We don’t have the money.”  The guy from traffic stood up and said, “We have lights that people have been looking for since 1986.  We just don’t have the money to put them in.  If you want them, you’ll have to pay for them.”  That’s obscene! That’s a terrible answer!  We’re paying for paving the streets!  We’re paying for cars to go faster! But we don't have money for safety improvements that would benefit all users.  We need to spend our monies in a better fashion." 

Jerry’s suggested reading:

Speck, Jeff.  Walkable City:  How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. New York: North Point Press, 2012. link