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Editorial: Biking is a missed opportunity

A recently released national survey ranking cities and towns on their bike-friendly infrastructure ranked Middlebury near the bottom. Such a result is not unexpected, nor is it a putdown.
The purpose of the survey is to encourage communities to improve their ranking by understanding where they stand today and which areas they need to work on.
As reporter James Finn writes in a front page story in this issue, the PlacesForBikes City Ratings survey provides a snapshot of the quality of cycling life in cities and towns across America, and Middlebury ranked 1.4 out of 5 possible points. Burlington ranked 2.1, while Montpelier and Rutland each earned 1.5, and Brattleboro ranked .09. We’re not dead last, but Middlebury has a lot of room to improve.
The community question is: What specifically do we need to do, and how do we get there?
It’s not the first time this question has been asked. Adam Franco is the chair of the Addison county Walk-Bike Council, a group tasked with recommending ways to improve walking and cycling access and routes throughout the county. Laura Asermily helped start Middlebury Safe Routes, dedicated to providing safe routes to walk and bike to school, and she is a member of the Middlebury Select Board — the local body that will ultimately approve suggested improvements.
Already, suggestions have been made to widen shoulders and designate bike lanes on critical biking/walking routes, but we all know the backside of that story: it costs a little bit extra to build a wider shoulder, to designate and stripe a separate bicycle lane, to create a sidewalk path from neighborhood to neighborhood to the town’s schools. It just doesn’t happen, in other words, at the snap of a finger. It takes a concerted effort pushed by public support.
Should it happen? Absolutely.
Here are three reasons why:
• Creating a bike-friendly community, and developing the greater Middlebury-area’s natural biking assets, generates a surprising economic boost. In a 2009 report (outdated but it proves the point even as biking as grown exponentially since then), biking and walking related activities created at least 1,400 jobs, $41 million in wages and $83 million in revenue, plus the health and property value benefits added another $400 million benefit. In the past decade that number has skyrocketed throughout the country, though Middlebury has seemingly missed out on much of that increase while other Vermont towns such as Stowe, Waterbury, Burke and more recently Waitsfield and Killington have been huge beneficiaries. In short, it could be a significant economic driver to Middlebury’s economy.
• Biking and walking to work or school are great ways to stay fit, and in a world where health care costs are an increasingly large part of a family’s expenses, fitness is critical and could save communities and individuals money— and lots of it.
• Bike paths, in particular, attract younger residents. If Addison County, and Middlebury in particular, want to attract and retain younger workers and families, having a well-established network of bike trails (road, mountain bike and gravel) in the near vicinity is a huge plus.
In short, making Middlebury more accessible to bike traffic is not just to appease a few folks on bicycles, but rather one of the key ingredients to making Middlebury a friendlier, healthier, more attractive community in which young singles and families will be more inclined to move to and work in.
What needs to be done? Plenty, but here are a few starters: 1) place bike racks at convenient places; 2) when Court Street is repaved in 2020, make sure the state eliminates or reduces the recessed water grates which are hazardous to bikers; 3) designate bike lanes on the major through streets (Court Street, Exchange Street, maybe Washington Street Ext., for starters); 4) design pathways that connect neighborhoods to schools and shopping (and then make that happen); and 5) promote the area for what many call some of the best riding in the state.
But first, Middlebury must understand what it’s missing out on, and embrace the economic opportunity just begging to be tapped. If it does, Middlebury will also find itself trending a bit more hip, youthful and energetic — that would be welcome, too.

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