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Is busy Burlington street safer with one less lane?

Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 6:06 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Burlington officials say they’re on the road to building a better city for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians, but the latest change to a busy downtown street has some saying the South Winooski Avenue reconfiguration now seems more dangerous.

South Winooski Avenue runs parallel to Church Street, providing access to downtown hot spots like City Market, Handy’s Service Center, and the marketplace parking garage. Now, rather than two travel lanes in each direction, the street has just one in each direction with a center turning lane. The four-to three-lane road diet opens up road real estate to establish dedicated bike lanes on each side.

“South Winooski is a central corridor through our city, and previously it had no accommodations at all for people riding bikes,” said Jonathon Weber with Local Motion, one of the groups that pushed for the conversion.

While Weber says the city has a lot of work left to completely connect the bike network through downtown, this is a step in the right direction. He also argues the configuration is safer for drivers and pedestrians. “What I like most about this four to three conversion is that it just calms down the roadway,” he said. Weber says that means cars will move at a more consistent, predictable pace and it prevents drivers from using the second travel lane to speed past cars turning left. And when turning left, drivers only have to cross one lane of traffic as opposed to two. “So much easier, so much less stressful as a driver.”

The South Winooski reconfiguration is modeled after the one completed on North Avenue in 2016. A Burlington Police report shows crashes on North Avenue have reduced by nearly 50 percent since the reconfiguration.

“We know this has been a high-crash area of the city. We know that it’s going to go down. And when there are accidents, they’ll be less serious than they used to be,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington. “To get that kind of vision of a safe, mixed-use, walkable, bikeable, vibrant Burlington, yea, we think this is a really important and positive improvement, and we’ve been pleased by the results so far. There’s been very few complaints." Weinberger says nationwide studies support that conclusion, in addition to the North Avenue data,

But some who frequent South Winooski Avenue say they don’t see the city’s vision. “It just doesn’t make any sense. It causes drama to people,” said Chester Thompson with Handy’s Service Center. He says he’s witnessed lots of accidents on South Winooski and he’s not convinced the reconfiguration will help. He argues the street is too dangerous for any cyclists, and fewer travel lanes will increase congestion. “If the fire department comes and there’s an accident right here on the corner, how’s everybody going to get around? You can’t go in the next lane.” He worries the problems will only get worse this winter.

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