As Winston Churchill once said of Russia, I feel about Chicopee: It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
I bike through Chicopee every day, and even spend a fair amount of time going to businesses in the city, but I still don’t feel like I have a sense of the city. It is a community of contradictions: It is the second largest city in the Pioneer Valley, but routinely gets omitted when listing “major” cities in the area (usually it’s Springfield, Holyoke and Northampton that get mentions). It was settled in 1660 but is dominated by post-war suburban-style strip malls and ranch houses. It used to be one of the largest producers of bicycles in the country, but today boasts no bicycle facilities and few bicyclists.
The best I can make of Chicopee is that is a city trying to distance itself from its past and blend into the panorama of sprawling Brady Bunch suburbs. An industrial city that was built by immigrants, most people today know it by the box stores lining Memorial Drive. Billing itself as “The Crossroads of New England” because of the numerous highways that crisscross the city, it seems like a place that you pass through going somewhere else.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I learned that a group of UMass graduate students was preparing a bicycle and pedestrian plan for the city. The city enlisted this group of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning (LARP) students to develop a basic plan laying out key points of interest and connections via bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Kudos to the City Planning Department for this modest, but crucial, step forward.
The network they put together was ambitious and connected all parts of the city. They divided the city into three segments: Northeast, Northwest, and South, roughly divided up by highways. The network they constructed is a mix of on-road and off-road facilities, focusing on schools as key destinations.
One of the things the plan doesn’t do is prioritize investments or provide any sort of implementation plan. That’s fine; that wasn’t the point of the plan. But the next step has to include thinking about where are bicycle and pedestrian improvements both most useful and easiest to implement.
I have three suggestions:
- First is that the Cabotville area should be focused on. This is the historic downtown area in Chicopee, and has multiple one-way streets crisscrossing the area. These could easily be reduced from two lanes to one, with buffered bike lanes added. Furthermore, traffic calming measures which improve the pedestrian and biking environment would be relatively easy.
- Next, I would suggest that the viaduct on Route 116 just north of the Chicopee River is terrible for biking and walking. Furthermore, it is supremely overbuilt for the amount of traffic it carries. Bike lanes would be extremely easy to add. (This is a personal one for me, because that route would be super-convenient for getting to work).
- There will be a strong temptation to build bicycle and pedestrian facilities on roadways which are out of the way and little used, because it’s easy and non-controversial. That’s fine for maybe the first Complete Streets project, but they should move on quickly to places that people actually want to go to and that are conducive to biking and walking.
Again, I’m thankful to UMass LARP for putting together this initial vision for the City of Chicopee, and for the city staff who are interested in making the community more livable. As I said, Chicopee sometimes falls off people’s mental maps of the valley. Only by getting people out on the streets can a sense of place take hold, and turn Chicopee into a destination instead of merely a “crossroads.”