On a brisk November afternoon, 10 people bundled up in winter coats and reflective vests to brave the chill and walk a mile down Milton’s busy main thoroughfare.
The walkability audit conducted by the Vermont Department of Health in conjunction with the Milton Community Youth Coalition was an extension of the ongoing Route 7 corridor study, sponsored by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission in partnership with the town of Milton and the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
“The goal is to really find what the main issues are [with Route 7],” said Katie Miller, MCYC program director, noting it focuses on pedestrian and cyclist safety.
A state prevention grant recipient, MCYC hosted the event on Friday, Nov. 21, using its Route 7 office as a hub. Participants, including town employees and corridor committee members, left the office in groups to walk one-mile segments of the study area, which stretches from Forbes Road to Main Street.
DOH officials Amy Malinowski and Ed DeMott instructed participants to rate their segments with walkability and bikeability checklists developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Participants had to consider the ease of crossing streets, sidewalk conditions, traffic behavior and other safety concerns. Walkers rated these on a scale of 1 (awful) to 6 (excellent) and recorded basic observations along the way.
“Sidewalk ended at a ravine near Boysenberry [Drive],” one participant noted in the Bartlett Street to Bombardier Road section. “Scary!”
A walker on the Barnum to Main Street stretch noted, “Curve north of Main Street makes it difficult to see oncoming traffic while in crosswalk.”
Other observations were specific suggestions.
“No crosswalks on this section,” wrote a participant on the Forbes to Bartlett Road segment. “Traffic moves very fast, but it might be possible to have one [crosswalk] near the diner.”
DeMott, a DOH chronic disease prevention specialist and CCRPC committee member, said there’s a significant amount of work to do. Milton Recreation Coordinator Kym Duchesneau, another committee member who walked Barnum to Bombardier with DeMott, enjoyed the study since she’s a resident here who walks a lot.
“It was a really great exercise to be aware of everything as you’re walking,” she said.
The audit was DOH’s first step in the larger corridor study process. DeMott said the department has developed a close relationship with CCRPC over the last several years, and the commission has made health a priority.
“As a society, we’ve basically engineered physical activity out of our days and concentrated on making accommodations for automobiles,” DeMott said. “Healthy community design is something we’re concentrating on now in the greater role of prevention.”
DeMott said DOH sent the raw scores to CCRPC for its public input report. DOH will also use the data in its own independent health impact assessment, which considers how projects impact community wellbeing.
Miller said MCYC will continue promoting pedestrian safety with a variety of programs in the new year, including a “walking school bus” program in conjunction with Safe Routes to School, a nationwide program encouraging children to walk or bike to school.
Duchesneau said health and wellness are important goals for Milton Rec.
“It’s great for people to be able to walk to the store and feel safe doing it,” she said. “Just having everything connected is really important.”
CCRPC will hold two more public meetings on the corridor study this winter and next spring. The Milton Selectboard will ultimately consider the study’s final recommendations. From there, funding will be the next hurdle.
“None of this was a surprise to anybody,” Duchesneau said of the potential improvements identified thus far. “It’s all in the works, and the plan is just really expensive … it’s a lot of grant funding and timing.”
Discussion at the October 9 selectboard meeting indicated quick fixes for better pedestrian safety – like changing crossing signal times – are more achievable than pricy, time-consuming alternatives like building new sidewalks or crosswalks.
Nonetheless, all parties agreed the audit was a literal step in the right direction.
“It will definitely help,” Duchesneau said. “It will be more data and more support, and we can just go from there.”