PORTSMOUTH — When the City Council next meets, it’s expected to take two votes related to the Middle Street bike lanes; one to form a task force to study the configuration, the other to move parked cars back along the curb.
The bike lanes were made with a Safe Routes to School grant and strong opinions have since been formed, both for and against them.
City Councilor John Tabor is proposing the formation of a task force which, he said, would answer the question, “How can we make Middle Street a bicycle-pedestrian-vehicle boulevard that works for everyone and enhances the city?” He was scheduled to make his proposal Monday, but the council meeting was canceled.
Tabor is proposing the task force be comprised of a chair, residents from the east and west side of Middle Street, a Middle Street business owner, a member of the Parking and Traffic Safety Committee, a representative from Seacoast Area Bicycle Riders, and city staff recommended by the city manager. Composition of the task force could be revisited, meetings would start by Sept. 18 and be public, he proposes.
The councilor suggests the task force first agree “on principles for an enhanced Middle Street long-term design.”
“They will review and assess neighborhood needs, transportation requirements, bicycle and pedestrian requirements and overall ways to harmonize these and maintain the iconic nature of Middle Street as a tree-lined artery for Portsmouth,” according to Tabor’s plan. “Then they will discuss all the ways to improve from the current design. They will also request and receive drawings and iterations (which may require city funding) and develop final recommendations for PTSC and the city council by year end.”
Tabor notes the “protected bike lane” portion, extending behind parked cars for 1,600 feet of Middle Street, “is the only protected bike lane in the state.” He reports some cyclists and the state Department of Transportation consider it the safest design for cycling, while a recent “dooring” incident and other accidents in the area “raise safety concerns.”
“It’s time to take a deeper look at whether the original design, essentially a pilot project, is best for the long term and whether there are better alternatives,” according to Tabor’s proposal. “A Middle Street Task Force can develop a long-term vision and direction so city staff can build on the strengths and take away the weaknesses.”
Councilor Petra Huda is expected to make a motion at the next meeting to move vehicle parking back to the curb “immediately for safety of all in lieu of the recent (dooring) accident.”
Councilor Esther Kennedy made the same motion in early August, but a majority of the council voted to continue the debate, citing a lack of time to study data provided by Huda and Kennedy.
Huda previously told the council the city’s own data and reports show there are fewer cyclists there since the lanes were made, the lanes are not consistent with other bike lanes in the city and “are confusing and dangerous.” She said from a cycling perspective, there are deep-seated rain grates, debris and often trash and recycling bins in the bike path. Huda said cyclists can get hit by doors on both sides of the parked vehicles and are left with a choice of stopping at intersections to avoid accidents, or pedaling with the flow of traffic.
“How many of these safety issues could be avoided by putting the cars back along the curb?” she asked last month. “We’ve been talking about this for how long now, and now we’ve had an accident.”
The next City Council meeting has not yet been scheduled.