Sunday, January 26, 2014

Towns should invest in walkability, not infrastructure for cars

Parking, roads, sprawl housing and highways equal traffic congestion.
That’s what I see daily on one particular highway in Vermont.
And just as I used to do while walking along Route 93 in and near Conyngham, I look closely at each passing car to determine how many people are in it. My conservative estimate is this: Only one of every 99 motor vehicles that zips past me as I walk the shared walkway/bicycle path has more than one person – the driver – inside the cab of the hurtling 2,000-pound hunk of steel, plastic and glass.
That tells me this: There is no ride-sharing or carpooling to speak of. Vermonters, just like most Americans across the land, are true believers in the “freedom to pollute” philosophy I first heard about while a college student at Idaho State University in the early 970s.
(I write to air some personal thoughts, not pass on those of any organization).
After having my new passport photo taken at the town hall in early July (yes, Vermont has “towns;” Pennsylvania has one, Bloomsburg), I walked across the street to the Williston library to get a new library card. And it will let me borrow books from other local libraries, like the one in Essex Junction village to the north, which I actually live closer to and can walk to, not drive.
I could walk as well to the Williston library, but doing so would pose all sorts of safety hazards – all created by the absence of sidewalks or walkway.
When parking at a grocery store two miles from home, I always shake my head in wonderment at the home builder’s sign stuck into the turf across the road I just traveled, for that is a perfect example of what helps generate more vehicular traffic in the first place: Sprawl development.
It’s the same “highway-leads-to-sprawl-and-more-cars” situation I saw for years snaking across the Nescopeck Creek valley outside Conyngham.
Yes, I know everyone deserves a nice home. It’s American, after all. But yet I see, while walking, more than a few nice places for sale these days, both in Williston and in Essex Junction. It was much the same situation in the Hazleton area during my two decades there.
 How about we try and get people into these existing houses before more natural land is chewed up for a new sprawl neighborhood and its attendant automobiles? Will there be yet another “meadows” development in Sugarloaf? It’s inevitable, I guess.
So, I offer some suggestions: Put walkways, bicycle paths and sidewalks at the top of the funding heap. And remember that spending less on roads means more for public health and environmental mitigation.
Don’t allow any more trees to be felled. Trees native to Pennsylvania (just as those native to northern New England) are carbon dioxide sinks and yield oxygen in the bargain.
The objective of our municipal planning work should be to give people the freedom to move about freely without the burden of enormous gasoline and automobile expenses. What could be more American than that?
P.S. Experts recommend at least 2½ hours of moderate activity (such as brisk walking, brisk cycling, or yard work) a week.  It's fine to walk in blocks of 10 minutes or more throughout your day and week. If you're worried about how brisk walking might affect your health, talk with your doctor before you start a walking program. Daily dog walks are also a great way to keep up your walking routine.
And walking helps you meet other folks. You can’t do that when behind the wheel of your car, truck or SUV.
Vermont, I grant, is a leader in alternative transportation choices, but widening highways or building new ones simply to relieve congestion does not work – regardless of the state.

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