How DOTs can help Main Street
The nation’s more than 7,600 Main Streets are hurting. Nobody knows exactly how much. At some point in 2021, when the vaccine has become available to everybody and the numbers of Covid cases plummet, we will collectively look around American downtowns and see how many businesses are closed for good.
Then communities will need to help bring main streets back. Government will have to get creative, because only so much can be accomplished by economic stimulus programs. Complete streets have significant, often untapped, potential for boosting the economies of small or mid-sized downtowns.
That potential is a silver lining of poor transportation planning that has damaged main streets for generations, often funded by state departments of transportation. If states reverse these policies, using normal transportation dollars, we should see local economies respond, as I reported in November.
Streets.mn, which covers street policies and design in Minnesota, published an excellent article this week that explains the concept. The blog reports on a state DOT project in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, the hometown of Sinclair Lewis, who aptly wrote the American classic “Main Street.” This project represents “a forward-thinking initiative that has the potential to not just change life in Sauk Centre, but also on Main Streets across the state.” The bad news is that the project may still face “provincialism and lack of initiative in St. Paul (the state capital),” according to the blog. (State DOTs often do a dance of one step forward, one step back). Other projects around the state, including one in the Iron Range town of Biwabik—see illustration above—also represent a thoughtful approach to design.
Streets.mn makes many good points that apply to main streets nationwide, among them:
- Walking is transportation, and whether it has always been aware of it, MnDOT’s choices on almost every project have had an impact on the ability of people to walk around.
- MnDOT can’t bring back every local business, but it can at the minimum ensure that the way it designs its roads helps and not hurts. In the past, the agency has helped erode the wealth of small towns and cities by either destroying it outright, or by undermining main streets with hostile design and subsidizing their competition.
- Transportation is the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the volume of these emissions is closely correlated with the amount of VMT. These facilities are entirely within the control of MnDOT and whether emissions and VMT go up or down is a conscious choice that the agency’s leadership and staff make.
State and local DOTs and public works departments can be part of the solution for main streets in 2021, let’s encourage them to take a forward-thinking turn.