Walk/bike survey sparks discussion and action in New Haven and Addison County

NEW HAVEN — Some community members are initiating conversations with local and state decision makers on how to make Addison County’s roads more friendly for cyclist and walker.
“I don’t think cars should necessarily be king of the road,” said New Haven resident Susan Smiley.
Smiley and fellow New Havenite Doug McKain undertook a survey on the walk- and bikability of New Haven’s roads. They took the idea of a survey to the selectboard last spring, got it green lighted, and recently presented the survey results to the board.
Those involved in this survey and in broader efforts to expand the use of our roads hope the New Haven effort can be a pilot for similar undertakings that could result in safer routes for recreation and commuting.
What did the New Haven selectboard take away from this initial survey?
It “brought to light a different perspective,” said Selectboard Chair Kathy Barrett.
She observed that past estimates for the cost of adding official bike lanes to New Haven roads have run to the tune of $50,000 to $100,000 per mile. McKain and Smiley’s survey and presentation gave the selectboard new ideas about how to take smaller, more-affordable steps toward pedestrian and bike safety and gave them local resources to tap into. Among these resources is the year-old Walk-Bike Council of Addison County, of which McKain is vice chair.
The presentation has also put bike and pedestrian safety on the map as the selectboard continues its ongoing conversations about road repair.
“We will look at the roads and ask where we can make changes to increase walker and bike safety,” said Barrett.
New Haven, like the rest of Addison County, is a biking magnet not just for locals but also for out-of-state tourists. McKain described Addison County as having some of the best recreational biking in the state. But in New Haven, as elsewhere in the county, “There’s some scary places,” said McKain.
“Experienced bikers are often very confident about safety,” said planner Claire Tebbs of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission and commission facilitator for the Walk-Bike Council. But for families with children or less-experienced cyclists “we have a long way to go.”
Comments in the New Haven survey, for example, included:
•  “I stopped biking like I used to because of traffic speed, local accidents with fatalities and no bike lanes in New Haven.”
•  “It is very dangerous to bike with kids in this area, which is sad. There are no shoulders and the traffic is crazy … We live close and are not comfortable letting our kids walk to school!”
McKain and Smiley gave examples of small steps that could have a big impact on town roads. First, is identifying trouble spots.
“People who are experienced bike riders can help you know where those places are,” said Smiley.
The east end of River Road is one example, said McKain. There’s not enough shoulder, cars go fast, bicyclists must bike uphill, and visibility is limited.
Cyclists going downhill move fast and so can occupy the travel lane, the same as cars; but cyclists going uphill need a wider shoulder to travel safely and allow cars to safely pass.
To be safe at this spot, cyclists often must occupy the center of the main lane, which can annoy drivers. A commonsense solution, McKain said, is to use “striping” to create a wider shoulder on the uphill side, shift the centerline over and create asymmetrical lanes.
Simply putting the paint in a different place, observed Barrett, is far more affordable for towns than widening the roads.
There are lots of ways to create safer roads for walkers and cyclists said Tebbs. Narrowing lanes, for example, slows traffic. Pedestrian “bump-outs” at crosswalks, such as those added to the main intersection in downtown Bristol and at several spots in downtown Vergennes, slow traffic and increase pedestrian visibility. Using striping to widen a shoulder and narrow a roadway or improving paving on a crumbling shoulder can give cyclists just enough extra room — without going whole hog on an official bike lane.
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit,” Tebbs said.
Another important change is cultural, the idea that bikes and cars should share the road.
“We’re a car-oriented rural state. There’s no denying it’s a necessity. So the cultural piece is huge,” Tebbs said.
While the Walk-Bike Council is looking at the New Haven survey as a pilot for further town- and county-wide studies, Tebbs said it gives an equally important example of how to engage effectively at the local level.
“It’s so important to take this conversation to the selectboard level. They’re a very practical team. They’re talking budget. They’re talking ‘How do we get this done?’” she said. “If you can’t get your conversation to that group then it’s likely not going to happen. From a grant standpoint or a road crew standpoint, everything goes through your selectboard.”
The Walk-Bike Council has also initiated similar conversations at the state level. The group’s infrastructure committee submitted comments to the Vermont Agency of Transportation about biking hazards along the stretch of Route 116 from Starksboro to East Middlebury being repaved this fall and next spring. Council Chair Adam Franco of Middlebury said the group learned a lot from its first efforts.
For one thing, VTrans ideally needs feedback three to five years ahead of roadwork. Franco said the group learned this after it submitted its recommendations in July, the day after the project went out to bid and a little over a month before work began.
“We learned a lot,” he said.
Nevertheless Franco reported that VTrans has discussed some of the group’s concerns with the repaving contractor to see if any adjustments could be made at key spots. One such spot is what cyclists call the “terror zone” between the edge of Bristol village and the Lincoln turnoff. Franco said he believed that VTrans will be able to add a little more paved shoulder in that area.
Franco also learned that VTrans is now aiming to create narrower rather than wider lanes for cars, which is good news for cyclists. The wider the lane, the faster cars tend to travel. In the past, travel lanes on state roads were being widened to 14, 15 or 16 feet, but the standard is now to narrow the travel lanes to 11 feet and create wider shoulders. This change will address many of the group’s concerns about other “terror zones” along Route 116 from the west edge of Bristol into East Middlebury, Franco said.
Next steps in New Haven for McKain and Smiley will be to investigate grants that can be applied to make roads more bikeable and walkable. The idea is to work in coordination with town’s schedule for which road is being repaired when.
Unlike the multiple layers and years-out scheduling Franco encountered on Route 116, addressing a town road can be simpler.
“It’s a town,” Smiley said. “You can call (New Haven road commissioner and selectboard member) John Roleau and say ‘What are you doing next?’”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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