Two-way travel on Main Street key ingredient to downtown success

If you are wondering why Fitchburg is going through all of the trouble of returning Main Street to two-way traffic starting Thursday morning, it might be useful to look back at why the one-way traffic pattern was implemented in the 1960s, what the problems are with this design and what the city is trying to accomplish with this new travel pattern.

Main Street was laid out long before the automobile, when Fitchburg’s biggest traffic problems included trying to keep the dust down and cleaning up horse manure. Even after cars appeared in the early 20th century, downtown was focused on serving pedestrians who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods or rode the streetcars to Main Street.

This all changed after World War II when the car became king. Urban planners in Fitchburg and other cities across the country saw the dramatic increase in traffic in the 1950s, and looked for ways to ease the growing congestion. The solution they found was to abandon traditional traffic patterns and create larger one-way corridors that could move traffic faster and more efficient.

This is exactly how Fitchburg and many other communities across the country decided to transform their downtowns. In the 1960s, Main Street was converted to two lanes of one-way traffic and Boulder Drive was created to carry traffic in the opposite direction. The planners had prioritized the car downtown, but didn’t consider the side effects of this decision.

The problem with this plan is that it left the rest of downtown behind. Traffic moved faster down Main Street, but at the expense of pedestrians crossing the street and traveling the sidewalks.

It made it easier for cars to get through downtown on their way to John Fitch Highway, but harder to reach businesses on Main Street. Higher traffic speeds limited the visibility of businesses on Main Street and storefronts on the far corner of buildings were hidden from the one-way traffic flow.

Beginning in the 1990s, planners across the country realized this was a mistake as downtowns starved of people were left to wither on the vine. Fitchburg is not alone in its decision to restore two-lane traffic downtown and many other cities have already gone through this process to undo these one-way traffic patterns.

If downtown Fitchburg is going to be a successful city center, it needs people. It needs people coming to downtown to work, shop, or go out to eat. It needs people living in the upper stories of buildings on Main Street. And it needs a traffic pattern that supports this vision.

Instead of giving priority to cars passing through to other parts of the city, two-way Main Street will be focused on serving the people living, working, shopping, and having fun downtown. This is a key ingredient in revitalizing the heart of our city and I am looking forward to it.

Andrew Van Hazinga is the city councilor for Ward 4 in the city of Fitchburg.

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