By Jerry Van Hook
It is perhaps not surprising that bicycling enthusiasts would also want to promote better walking conditions in Lexington. After all, both are human-powered activities, good for our health, good for the environment, and good for the social benefits of being able to pause at any time to chat with friends and neighbors along the way.
Although the interest in promoting walking improvements had these logical roots, there were practical problems to its implementation. In 2002 when bicycle committee members began to talk seriously about safe walking routes in Lexington, we asked the then town manager Rick White for his opinion. He pointed out that, however desirable the objective, it was not within the charter of either the Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) or the Friends of the Minuteman Bikeway (FOMB) organization to take on such a project. A committee targeted specifically to improvements in sidewalks and walking paths would be in a better position to deal with the more controversial issues that araise.
This was good advice and we embraced it with enthusiasm. We first determined whether the Town had any current information on existing sidewalks. Boston Edison had some data as did the Town DPW, but it was incomplete. Members of the FOMB decided to make a study of every street in the town, usually on bicycle with maps and clipboards, recording those street segments with no sidewalks, those with a sidewalk on one side, and those with sidewalks on both sides. While this inventory was in progress, we learned that the federal government was putting forward a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) initiative which emphasized walking to school with parental supervision, particularly at the elementary school level. This seemed the best way forward since the children would benefit at an early age and the parents would also be encouraged to participate. Taking the completed sidewalk map, we marked the location of the six elementary schools in Lexington and superimposed circles of half mile radius as a reasonable walking distance. As part of this exercise we also obtained data on the school busing districts in 2003 and marked this on our map as an indication of the residential areas from which students and parents could walk. Beyond this radius it was expected that most students would be bussed to school.
With two middle schools and one high school in town, the routes these older children would take would depend on busing or by the alternate use of bicycles. It was assumed that roadway routes for bicyclists would generally connect with the Minuteman Bikeway and other off road paths from low traffic-density roads in the individual neighborhoods.
As the sidewalk inventory and SRTS programs evolved, it became even more evident that a separate sidewalk committee would be a better vehicle for these issues. Since the FOMB had several members that were also involved in stewardship of conservation lands throughout town, many of which were adjacent to schools, it was natural to focus on the less controversial task of improving walking paths through conservation land to enhance the access to all schools and to public spaces throughout Lexington. This program, described elsewhere in the Newsletter, is strong and ongoing under the leadership of bicycle committee member Mike Tabaczinsky and his volunteers.
The Lexington Planning Board under Glen Garber was the first to use the information gathered by the FOMB on walking and bicycling routes. This resulted in the publication in 2004 of the report "THE LEXINGTON WE WANT" which incorporated the sidewalk survey and the existing bike paths and recommended low-traffic roadways for bicyclist use in this town. The Selectmen had been giving thought to creating a Lexington Sidewalk Committee (LSC) and in the Spring of 2005 the committee was formed. Its charter was to be a systematic evaluation of walking conditions and a plan for improvements which would be ongoing over the years. This LSC would take on as an early task a program fostering SRTS at the elementary schools, thereafter expanding to all the schools. Walking to centers of commerce and public gathering would also be promoted and the issues on sidewalk construction and maintenance would be addressed. The present writer was appointed as a member of the LSC and regularly reports on their activities at the bicycle committee meetings. Our committees are justly proud of their part in laying the groundwork on walking conditions in Lexington and in their continuing involvement in bringing better conditions for these two alternatives to the community.
Jerry is a member of Friends of the Minuteman Bikeway (FOMB) and the Lexington Sidewalk Committee (LSC)