Conversation with David Narkewicz
Traffic Calming Study Seeks
To Address Safety Concerns
By Edward Shanahan
As an eager young reporter, I could usually come up with a good news story from an otherwise endless and mostly boring City Council, zoning or planning meeting.
If you listen carefully it is at the meetings, public hearings and in the small print of municipal ordinances and regulations that civic life is played out in communities.
But as most of us have a short attention span we don’t feel we have the time to pay attention to the details. Let someone else take care of that for us.
After spending a couple of hours recently with Ward 4 City Councilor David Narkewicz, I came away with the sense that, when it comes to traffic issues in Northampton, he is paying attention in his extremely measured and quiet way, which is likely how change comes about.
Even though I approached our meeting with my predictably strong opinions, I did listen to what Narkewicz, chairman of the city’s Transportation and Parking Commission since 2005, had to say. And even though traffic, transportation and parking are typically unsexy subjects, I feel better for having talked to him.
After two hours, I left with a ruled yellow pad on which I had written extensive but illegible notes, as well as a batch of material Narkewicz provided to me.
Only 25 percent of the commission’s time, Narkewicz said, is spent on parking concerns. Those difficult matters are handled chiefly by William Letendre, the city’s parking director, who reports directly to the mayor.
For Narkewicz and the commission, traffic safety is a more urgent issue, which some of us in Northampton, especially in residential neighborhoods, would second.
On the matter of the all but invisible pedestrian crosswalks in the city (See photos on home page), Narkewicz says he has had a “colloquy” abut this with Ned Huntley of the Department of Public Works and it comes down to a lack for funds for the manpower to do the work. Narkewicz also said the city is experimenting in the downtown with a new tape material that might be more effective than painted lines. Still, he admits the degraded crosswalks pose a serious safety risk.
“The big one we’re working on is a traffic calming program for the city,” he said, and handed me a 13-page draft that is currently making its way through the 12-member policy-making commission, which is made up of nine city officials and three citizens.
According to Narkewicz, a public hearing will be held on the plan some time this spring or summer.
As the draft plans states: “Speeding traffic is a major concern in the city … because of its detrimental impacts on the safety and livability of our streets.”
The goal of the program is to “develop a priority list of traffic calming” projects for various parts of the city, based on citizen suggestions, statistical analysis and engineering study, said Narkewicz. The need is for “data” not “emotions,” he said, and “neighborhood support is a big factor.”
Experience has concluded that posting speed limit signs and regulatory controls are largely ineffective at slowing traffic. This is best accomplished when “drivers are slowed down by the physical characteristics of the roadway, not by an artificially imposed speed limit or Stop sign,” the draft plan states.
For example, there is a plan to construct a Roundabout at the intersection of North Main Street and Bridge Road at the Look Park entrance. “What traffic calming is about is engineering the roadway to physically alter driver behavior,” Narkewizc explained. “It’s physics, pure and simple.”
This can entail roadway reconstruction or it can also be done less aggressively, such as was done by painting a section of South Street to narrow the width of the traveled lanes to slow traffic.
In addition, the commission is developing a l.ist that ranks the needs for sidewalks in various parts of the city, which is ultimately a traffic safety strategy, too.
Five pages of the draft proposal contain imaginative illustrations and descriptions of 14 possible traffic calming installations, They are: Center Island Narrowing, Center Medians, Chicane, Chokers, Neckdowns/Bulbouts, Raised Crosswalks, Raised Intersections, Road Diets, Roundabouts, Speed Humps, Speed Tables, Textured Pavement, Traffic Circles and Travel Lane Width Reduction.
I suggest citizens take a look at the wide variety of calming ideas.
But, said Narkewicz: “There is no way to devise traffic calming that doesn’t cost money,” and thus the process for approving projects is a rigorous one.
Bringing traffic calming proposals to the commission is easy. Any citizen or neighborhood can do it. Forms can be submitted to the commission, which, in considering it, elicits public comment before it determines if the proposal merits further study,
If it fits into a priority ranking of traffic safety concerns, the commission sends the request to the Department of Public
The proposal then goes back to the commission. Neighborhood property owners will be given a chance to weigh in at a hearing. At that point, the commission either recommends or rejects the proposal. Those projects that are recommended are ranked by priority and then are referred to the Department of Public Works, which submits a request to the city Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for funding.
If approved, the final step will be that “high-priority traffic-calming projects … will then be placed on the approved CIP list as recommended to the mayor and finance director by the Capital Improvement Committee.”
Given the city’s strapped finances, don’t look for many traffic- calming projects to be installed around Northampton soon.
But the process as outlined is rational, intelligent and methodical, just like David Narkewicz, its chief architect.
Meanwhile, Narkewicz is not discouraged just because there are no funds in view now. He believes that the city needs to find a way to employ a traffic engineer as part of the Department of Public Works, rather than farm out its engineering tasks as it does now.
“I would argue that traffic safety is part of our quality of life,” and ought to get the attention and resources it requires, he said.
Other safety issues before the commission include studying a ban on motorists using hand-held cell phones while driving, a prohibition adopted in other jurisdictions.
Also, the commission is looking at the possibility of installing red-light cameras at intersections , which can identify drivers who run red lights.
This, he admits, raises issues of civil liberties, which have to be balanced against public safety.
Finally, Narkewicz, who has been a member of the commission since its creation in 2003, also sees value in the Pace Car program, which he instituted. That encourages “personal responsibility” on the part of drivers in the city “to share the road” by driving by the rules and yielding to pedestrians and bicyclists..
It’s not a bricks and mortar program, but one of public education and can make a difference “if enough people buy into it,” he said.
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