Treading a path to make Harford friendlier to bikes, pedestrians

Workshops to promote walkable communities

April 24, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Growing up in a small town in Michigan, Jeff Springer remembers the days when he could walk to the store for a gallon of milk and be home a few minutes later. Now he lives in Harford County, and the nearest grocery store is a mile and a half away.

He wouldn't mind riding his bike there, but there are no bike racks. So, like so many other people, he finds himself getting in his car to run errands.

Springer, a civil engineer who is earning his master's degree in urban planning at Morgan State University, would like to see the communities in Harford County become more accessible to walkers and bicyclists.

He's working with a nonprofit organization, the National Center for Bicycling and Walking, to help organize four workshops in the county May 4 and 5.

The workshops, funded by the Maryland Department of Transportation, will bring together municipal planners, elected officials and residents to discuss ways to make Harford County friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists. Springer has volunteered to serve as a point of contact for participants. "I'm doing this out of just a passion because it needs to be done," he said.

Bob Chauncey, the director of policy analysis for the center, will be in Harford County as part of the center's contract with the state Department of Transportation to do four weeks of workshops in Maryland. He conducts about 120 of these workshops throughout the country each year, he said.

Chauncey, who lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore, in Chestertown, said Maryland is no better or worse than other states has has visited.

In Maryland suburbs, as in other states he's traveled to, he has seen a residential development on one side of the street, a shopping center on the other, and a street too dangerous to cross.

"You just can't walk across the street without taking your life in your hands," he said.

The four-hour workshops typically begin with a presentation in which Chauncey discusses characteristics of a walkable community.

"Picture a typical sidewalk," he said. "In a walkable community, it's wider than five or six feet to allow you to actually converse with someone while you're walking. It's well-maintained; it's well-lit."

It also has shade trees and a buffer, maybe a planting strip, between the sidewalk and the traffic.

Sidewalks are in a grid, so people can walk from one place to another without backtracking. Also, crosswalks are well-maintained. Traffic-calming devices such as speed bumps keep cars from speeding in residential communities.

"Then we take people for a walk, and we point out in their communities what's good and what's not so good," he said.

When everyone goes back inside, they sit down in small groups with detailed maps and discuss in detail what can be changed, he said.

"Then we talk about all that," Chauncey said. "The community listens to each other." The final step is for the group to come up with specific ideas that can be implemented.

Chauncey will share ideas that have worked in other communities, such as having parents share the responsibility for walking kids to school. A simple change such as installing bike racks in front of stores can make a difference.

Springer noted that only about 10 percent of children nationwide walk to school these days, in large part because the roads are not safe for walkers.

Chauncey outlined some of the benefits of encouraging walking and bike riding. "In our presentations, we talk about health, we talk about the fact that as a nation we're getting fatter and that our kids are getting fatter, and that's a real crime," Chauncey said.

He also noted that increased walking and biking leads to less pollution from cars. There are also financial benefits. Reduced reliance on automobiles reduces the costs associated with driving - not just the price of the vehicles and fuel, but road maintenance, health costs from accidents, police and emergency responders, he said. And houses in walkable communities are typically worth more.

Besides, not everyone can drive. Children who are too young to drive have to rely on adults to take them places if they can't walk there, he said.

"We're not saying, `Let's sell all the cars,' but we are saying we are pro-transportation choice. Let's give people some options," he said.

The workshops are scheduled for May 4 at Aberdeen Town Hall from 8 a.m. to noon (410-272-1600) and Harford Community College from 1 to 5 p.m. (410-836-4400); and May 5 at the Armory on Main Street in Bel Air from 8 a.m. to noon (410-638-4545) and the Havre de Grace Police Station from 1 to 5 p.m. (410-939-1800).

For more information about NCBW, visit www.bikewalk.org.

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