Exploring ‘complete streets’ in Amherst

Columnist Sarah la Cour: Exploring ‘complete streets’ in Amherst


When in Copenhagen, Denmark, it’s second nature to hop on your bicycle to commute to work, shop for groceries or take your kids to school. Their roadway infrastructure, like many other European cities, has long been accommodating to alternative forms of transportation and is safe and accessible.

Recently visiting as an American, it was amazing and inspiring to watch how the bicycle lanes would crowd up at rush hour in an orderly fashion and how pedestrians easily maneuvered next to them. Motorized vehicles have become secondary in their transportation hierarchy and it works — except for me, of course, who was almost run down numerous times by walking in the bike lane, and for the tourists who rented bicycles but had no idea how to navigate the streets like the natives.

But we’re not from there. This hasn’t been our norm. But it can be.

Times are changing and Amherst is creating a “complete streets” program that can rival any in Europe. Recently, Amherst received funding from the Commonwealth’s Community Compact program to develop this cohesive system for nonmotorized transportation that fulfills the town’s master plan principles as well as promotes long-term climate action.

Not only is this an incredible move forward for safety, sustainability and accessibility throughout town, but in downtown this will help create an alternative transportation network that improves walkability, takes the pressure off parking and enhances the pedestrian and bicycle experience.

This works successfully in Copenhagen, and many other cities across the world, because they have created a culture of alternative transportation that promotes a healthier society and planet. They have bought into the ability to exercise while commuting and allow everyone access to the same safe and solid infrastructure.

They have also embraced the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and are a world leader in the use of a carbon tax. Gas for automobiles at almost $6 per gallon might also be a contributing factor, but it’s still important to acknowledge that these systems are the accepted form of transportation and they work.

It was charming to see the tiniest children in Denmark learning to “ride” on balance bikes with no pedals. They had barely learned to walk but were running along with their bikes. That is a lifestyle it would be great to see here in Amherst. Many in our community have been working hard to enhance our bicycle culture and there are many new programs and initiatives to tap into, such as the Pioneer ValleyBike Share Program.

With the development of a “complete streets” policy in Amherst, we can create an infrastructure with dedicated lanes that are safe for biking children and families as well as strollers, wheelchairs and pedestrians — one with street trees and amenities that make the streets of downtown destinations in themselves where people can gather, exercise, relax and have fun. And you don’t have to worry about parking your car: It’s a whole lot easier to find the space to park multiple bicycles than it is cars.

Having walked, biked and ridden public transportation in Copenhagen in the last few weeks, I am convinced that they have a fabulous system that incorporates all modes of transport into one safe and accessible network. We can do that too and I’m thrilled that Amherst has taken the initiative to develop this policy.

The Business Improvement District looks forward to working with Town Hall, the Department of Public Works, and all associated committees and commissions to bring this to fruition as soon as possible. It will not only enhance our quality of life but place us on a stronger path to ecological sustainability.

I can’t wait to see bicycle “rush hour” on North Pleasant Street!

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.