Many of our nation’s communities,
especially smaller towns and historic suburbs, have a distinct Main Street, a
concentration of buildings sometimes a few stories high, that stretch on both
sides of the community’s primary street for several blocks. Typically, the first floor is retail with warehousing,
offices, meeting halls, or residential quarters occupying the upper floors. Civic
buildings, plazas, town squares, sidewalks, and other public spaces contribute
to the structure of a typical Main Street by providing for social and political
discourse and a catalyst for economic activity.
Frequently, Main Street may serve as the community’s downtown and as the
economic, social, and political focal point of a much larger, region. A
community’s Main Street is often a segment of a state or county roadway, an
artery that connects the heart of a community with its adjacent neighborhoods,
its hinterlands, and the commercial centers in distant towns and cities. Consequently, Main Streets can carry a
significant amount of traffic, much of which is only passing through the
community oblivious to the other critically important local functions of the
street, while others serve mostly local community traffic.
Although state and county
transportation departments usually consider local needs, their traditional
mandate has mostly been oriented to moving regional vehicular traffic through
town. Increasingly, transportation
departments have begun to realize that Main Street performs several competing functions. While it remains a primary responsibility of
a transportation agency to move regional and local traffic efficiently and
safely along Main Street and supply access to adjacent properties, the agency
must also avoid, minimize, or compensate for adverse impacts to the social, economic,
and environmental functions of the street.
For a community to remain
economically and socially viable, Main Street must provide more than mobility for
only motorized vehicles, it must provide multi-modal mobility and access that
generate opportunities for robust economic, social, and political intercourse.
Although there has been much speculation about how a Main Street should be
designed to achieve these often conflicting goals, little research has been
done to verify their effectiveness.
The lack of research, however,
hasn’t prevented urban planners, designers, and officials from trying various
techniques, including combinations of historic preservation and interpretation,
streetscape improvements, adding public art, creating entertainment districts, hosting
civic celebrations, improving housing, promoting retail and commercial
development, and other interventions to make Main Street more socially livable
and economically dynamic.
Sometimes these interventions
have worked or worked briefly, or worked in only selected locations. Sometimes
they have simply failed. Still, understanding what generates social and
economic vitality on Main Street and what does not, and how transportation
agencies can be an effective catalyst in generating that vitality, remains,
largely, a mystery.
For transportation agencies that
are being asked to support (or at least not hinder) maintaining or improving the
social, economic, and environmental functions of Main Street, it is critical to
know which actions taken by a transportation agency are effective and under
what circumstances they will succeed in achieving the social and economic goals
their proponents desire.
research program should identify and define effective and proven performance metrics
for evaluating Main Street success, including especially those related to its
transportation, social, economic, and environmental functions. Using those metrics, the researcher should
select for further study, at least five implemented Main Street interventions
which included the substantial involvement of a state or county transportation
agency. The selected Main Streets must
have available pre- and post-intervention transportation, social, and economic
data as necessary to conduct the investigation. The result of the investigation
should identify the effectiveness of transportation improvements had on the
achievement of the transportation, social and economic performance measures
established for Main Street.