State Street, east of the Capitol, is a vital Harrisburg neighborhood, home to thousands of city residents who live, work, attend school, worship and play. It is also an important transportation corridor that connects the State Street community to downtown Harrisburg, Penbrook and communities east of the city.
There is no question that State Street, as currently configured, is dangerous. It has a lengthy record of tragic pedestrian deaths, numerous vehicle accidents and an ongoing problem of a high percentage of vehicles exceeding the posted 35 mile-per-hour speed limit. The 76-foot-wide street is too wide for many pedestrians, particularly children, people with physical disabilities and the elderly to safely cross during a normal traffic light cycle.
The city of Harrisburg and PennDOT District 8 have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform State Street into a modern, multimodal, 21st century transportation corridor that improves the quality of life for State Street residents by calming traffic and improving safety for all pedestrians, bicycle riders and other roadway users. It is also critically important that resident parking be preserved and safe drop-off/pickup areas be created at each of the several schools and churches located along State Street.
Over the past few years, both Pennsylvania and our nation have experienced a dramatic increase in pedestrian and bicycle rider deaths. These are attributable to both increased highway speeds and widespread use of larger, heavier motor vehicles such as SUVs. Therefore, most critical in any redesign of State Street is to design the roadway so that it calms traffic flow to reduce excessive speeding, improves visibility of pedestrians and bicycle riders, shortens the distance pedestrians must travel to cross the roadway, provides safe mid-roadway pedestrian “islands,” and provides protected lanes for bicycle riders to travel.
As we transition to a post-pandemic world, a large percentage of the workforce will continue to work from home, reducing the numbers driving to and from their workplace and reducing the projected increases in capacity needed on commuter routes. This means our transportation networks, parking facilities and workplaces must adapt to reflect this new reality. In addition, emerging micro-mobility devices, such as battery-powered, pedal-assist bicycles, scooters and other personal transportation vehicles are increasingly being used for transportation that require roadway infrastructure, such as protected bicycle lanes, to support their safe use.
The experience of nearby cities that have invested to improve roadway safety by addressing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, New York and many others, have seen that these investments improve the overall quality of life in neighborhoods throughout these cities.
Cities throughout the country have already instituted these roadway designs and have demonstrated they do work. Philadelphia has learned much from its experiences in redesigning its roadways to improving the quality of life for its residents while improving pedestrian, bicycle rider and vehicle safety. A 2021 study commissioned by the Philadelphia Department of Streets documents such benefits. Harrisburg should learn the lessons from years of experience of these other communities.
The State Street community deserves to have its “Main Street” redesigned and built to make it safe for efficient, multimodal travel while providing convenient parking to residents and visitors. As the eastern gateway into and out of the city, it must also continue to provide for safe and efficient travel for those passing through the State Street community. As a state-owned roadway, city leadership and PennDOT must work together to address and carefully balance community concerns with those of the entire city and neighboring communities.
Ross Willard is the founder and chief maintenance officer of Recycle Bicycle Harrisburg.
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