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New tack on Main Street transit

Promoting bike and car sharing, narrowing traffic lanes, and purchasing an electric shuttle bus are among the many ways that Melrose, Reading, and Wakefield can improve transportation along their shared Main Street corridor, according a new report.

The result of an eight-month study conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the report focuses on how to make the corridor more friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users, and the environment, along with how to better link the downtowns, commuter rail stations, and other key locations.

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The study area encompassed a stretch of about 9 miles from the Reading Depot to the Malden/Melrose line, including Main Street, MBTA bus routes 136 and 137 (from Reading to Malden through Melrose and Wakefield), and a quarter mile on either side of those areas.

“We tried to look at everything that was within walking distance of these transportation routes and bus stops and see what we could do to. . . . make it more convenient for people to walk and use these services, and to interconnect the three downtowns,’’ said Paul Reavis, Wakefield town planner.

The $25,000 study, which MAPC funded with state grants, is timely, given the growth the corridor has been experiencing, said Sarah Kurpiel, a transportation engineer and planner for the agency.

“This area is booming right now,’’ she said. “Now is the time to make these transportation connections the best that we can.’’

Reavis said the report also could help the communities argue against the proposed commuter rail and bus service cuts the MBTA is considering.

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“They are reductions that would significantly affect Melrose, Wakefield, and Reading,’’ he said. “We have been looking at ways to enhance the service and make it more viable.’’

Jean Delios, Reading’s community services director/town planner, said the study, which drew from input provided at public hearings in each of the three communities, represents “a good regional collaborative effort.’’

“It was really nice to work across town borders,’’ she said.

The report identified nine related goals and proposed strategies to achieve them, with an overall object to elevate the Main Street route to a “greener, more accessible multimodal transit corridor.’’

One of the goals, to improve bicycle access and amenities, includes an array of recommended steps, from expanding bicycle parking in dense areas to creating bike lanes and road markings, making low-cost helmets available, and adding a bicycle path along the Haverhill commuter rail line, which has stops in Reading, Wakefield, Melrose, and Malden.

Kurpiel said that the study team heard from many residents from the three communities who use their bicycles to get around despite the fact that there are no bike lanes and relatively little bike parking.

“One of the best ways to increase bicycling is to provide amenities to these bike riders,’’ she said.

To improve pedestrian access and amenities, the report recommends strategies that range from installing raised crosswalks to narrowing roadway widths, installing curb extensions, and upgrading pedestrian signals.

It also identifies a series of measures aimed at making it safer for pedestrians to walk to and around Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield.

The lake is just outside Wakefield’s downtown and close to Reading’s downtown, Kurpiel noted.

“But what we heard from a lot of residents,’’ she said, “is that whether or not they live a five- or 20-minute walk to the lake, many of them drive rather than walking.’’

Kurpiel said more people would walk if conditions were improved for pedestrians, noting that the walk from Reading is particularly uninviting, requiring residents to travel below a highway underpass in an area that is not well lit.

Another goal is to improve access to senior transportation services. Suggested steps include spurring regional collaboration among the three local councils on aging to better coordinate the transportation services available.

“We learned that there are a lot of existing services by the councils on aging and private companies that provide transportation to the elderly,’’ said Alison Felix, a transportation planner for MAPC. “But it is very much a patchwork and there are a lot of services not linked or consistent with each other.’’

Kurpiel said some of the strategies, such as widening sidewalks, would require significant investments of funds. But she said others, such as providing more bike racks “are not major investments and could go a long way.’’

Denise Gaffey, Melrose’s director of planning and community development, said she looks forward to putting some of the suggestions in place, and envisions additional public forums to help guide the implementation.

She said one of the recommendations, which calls for creating committees to promote healthy lifestyles, could be implemented by a new coordinator that Melrose and Wakefield will be hiring through their recent receipt of a state grant.

Reavis thinks the communities will work to bring some of the ideas in the report to fruition, noting that the Main Street corridor is a strong shared identity for Melrose, Reading, and Wakefield. “It’s really the spine of each of the three communities.’’

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