LOWELL -- UMass Lowell students will be able to ride LRTA buses for free in a pilot program starting in January in an initiative increasing coordination between the transportation agency and the city's largest traffic generator.
In another traffic-related plan, the city is envisioning improvements along what could be the most chaotic stretch of road in Lowell, where fast-food restaurants and other retailers can create a traffic nightmare along Chelmsford Street.
That stretch, between Lincoln Elementary School and Plain Street, could be redone with a center lane exclusively for left-turning vehicles.
The cheap fix -- it would require only new paint -- is estimated to cut down on accidents by 20 to 40 percent.
The city could also add new sidewalks along the stretch to make it safer for pedestrians, said Nicolas Bosonetto, the city's traffic engineer.
Some more minor changes could also come to Chelmsford Street.
A bike lane could be added between Plain Street and Wellman Street, by Lowe's Home Improvement, and a dedicated left-turn lane from Chelmsford Street westbound on to Wellman Street could also go in. City Councilor Rita Mercier supported the sidewalk improvement plan in particular.
"It may not seem like a big deal, but it is to me," she said of making that stretch more pedestrian-friendly.
City planners are trying a range of options to improve traffic flow across Lowell, often through relatively small fixes, like changing the timing of traffic lights or the layout of intersections.
Lights were also recently added at the intersection of Church and Lawrence streets.
A plan would also add a third and fourth travel lane on Nesmith Street between Andover Street and East Merrimack Street, part of broader changes envisioned for the Route 38 corridor. Just over two years ago, the city changed several one-way streets downtown to two-way traffic to help drivers get through the area.
Transportation data gives a picture of how many people are coming and going each day. Just over 50,000 Lowellians work, and four-fifths of them have jobs outside Lowell, according to data compiled by the city. About 25,000 people commute into Lowell each workday.
Very few -- 2 percent inbound, and 4 percent outbound -- take public transportation, including Lowell Regional Transit Authority buses or commuter rail trains.
While there is much room for improvement for public-transit ridership, there are other challenges in getting more cars off the road.
Residents use bicycles almost exclusively for recreation, not commuting, and nine out of 10 taking trips for work, shopping or dining are less than 1 mile. Gallagher Terminal, where commuter rail buses come from Boston and the main bus hub, is also nearly three-fourths of a mile from downtown. The Lowell National Historical Park has a trolley system, but it is limited in scope and not connected to bus routes.
In trying to get people to use cars less often, Bosonetto said the city is targeting the nearly 10,000 who both live and work in Lowell. UMass Lowell, with 18,000 students and 2,000 employees, could be responsible for more traffic than anyone.
The new pilot program connecting UMass Lowell students with LRTA buses is meant to be the start of a major step toward reducing gridlock. Students will get on buses free using their student IDs.
"The less vehicles that come into Lowell, the better," said Rich Lemoine, the university's executive director for administrative services and environmental and emergency management.
Jim Scanlan, the LRTA administrator, said the authority doesn't currently have a good picture of how many students ride the buses or where they board. Ridership in the new program will be tracked to see if students are using the buses to go shopping, dining or elsewhere.
"It's really a great breakthrough for our partnership," Scanlan said.
UMass Lowell offers the car-sharing program Zipcar and the bicycle-sharing program Freewheelers to try reducing vehicular trips.
The university started in 2010 with two Zipcar vehicles, and now has 14, said Tom Miliano, the school's senior director of administrative services.
"Our utilization rates are extraordinary, to say the least," he said.
The bike-sharing program includes 40 bikes and five stations where students, faculty and staff are able to rent them for free. The university says the program could be expanded off-campus in coordination with the city.
The LRTA has also added two Zipcar vehicles in its Gallagher Terminal parking garages and is hoping to add more cars.
In another transportation matter, Police Superintendent William Taylor has recommended that a traffic light be added to Middlesex Street in front of the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell.
Better traffic control will be needed when the school eventually expands to include high-school grades, he said. At that point, it would grow from about 600 students today to around 1,400, becoming the second-largest school in the city.
Taylor told the City Council in a memo last week he recommends a traffic light be added at the exit driveway from the school out to Middlesex Street. The council hasn't yet taken action on his memo.
The school uses two officers each day now for morning and afternoon traffic rushes.