ENOSBURG FALLS — Before Mark Fenton guided nearly two-dozen locals through the village, he explained why walkability matters.
Basically, Fenton said, there are two plain benefits to walkable communities.
First, he said, it’s the only proven method to keep Americans fit. Fenton said research suggests telling us to exercise doesn’t work, but having a community laid out in a manner that encourages walking does.
Second, statistics show a growing demographic shift toward walkable communities. People, especially young people, seem to want to live in a community where as much as possible is within walking distance.
Fenton’s point was that walkability is good for both personal and economic wellbeing. It seems to create that sense of community that sprawling development gradually eroded in the latter half of the 20th century.
Fenton gave the roughly 25 walkers, gathered for a preliminary barbecue at the unfinished Quincy Hotel, four physical objectives to keep in mind when gauging Enosburg Falls’ walkability.
One, compact development, offering opportunities for recreation, for work, for shopping and entertainment, within walking or cycling distance.
Two, comprehensive connections between sidewalks, bike lanes and other non-motorized transit routes.
Three, physical rewards for those who arrive on foot or by bike, rather than via another motorized vehicle — for example, buildings close to sidewalks, nearby street parking, bike parking, benches, fountains and similarly inviting street elements like public art and plantings.
And four, safe, accessible routes for everyone, regardless of age or physical abilities: curb ramps, painted crosswalks, crossing signals, or traffic calming measures like narrower lanes, center islands or roundabouts.
After that introduction, Fenton took off, trailed by residents, business owners and the village board of trustees. They crossed near Bond Auto Parts, walked down the block past Bleachers and the Community Bank and stopped outside the Enosburgh Diner.
Fenton competed on the U.S. national racewalking team from 1986-1991, and competed in the 31-mile Olympic racewalk trials in 1984 and 1988.
He displayed his racewalking prowess in navigating the central village, initially leaving the bulk of the walking group in the dust.
As it turns out, that was because Fenton had already toured the village. The rest of the group was applying his four criteria of walkability to the areas they passed.
Fenton stopped the group outside the Enosburgh Diner to hear how they’d rate that area, on a scale of one to 10, based on the walkability criteria.
The consensus was somewhere between a six and a seven. Not awful, but with clear room for improvement.
Fenton agreed with residents’ comments about the character of the area, the historic architecture, great brick buildings like the one that previously housed the village pharmacy. He also agreed that the width of the sidewalk was pedestrian friendly, leaving plenty of room for two-way foot traffic.
Fenton said research suggests a layout like downtown Enosburg Falls, a narrower traffic corridor with relatively taller buildings not set back far from the road, slows vehicular traffic, a good thing for pedestrians.
“This corridor has the potential to be a more traffic-calm zone,” Fenton said.
But that potential isn’t fully realized. Fenton said curb extensions could help, similar to the temporary curb extensions, or bumpouts, the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and volunteers established downtown earlier this week.
Fenton repeatedly used the example of his 80-something-year-old mom, gauging pedestrian safety by her safety in crossing roadways. For example, those temporary bumpouts move the edge of the line of sight past the rear of parked vehicles, so as soon as his mom’s ready to walk, she’s within sight of oncoming traffic — versus the commonly used setback crosswalks, on which pedestrians start walking before they become visible to oncoming traffic.
Fenton asked the group to imagine what the village could do with space reclaimed by a bumpout extension. Benches and raised bed gardens were the first suggestions.
“We’re not talking about tearing up the asphalt,” Fenton said. He said a raised bed could be secured right to the existing concrete without any of the financial or labor cost of a total overhaul.
Public art was another suggestion. Fenton suggested the local schools host a design competition, especially for functional art.
He showed an example from his hometown, a coastal community, where students created a bike rack in the shape of a shark, using the arch in the shark’s back to allow parking for multiple bike sizes.
Fenton and residents agreed on two areas of the village in particular need of improvement, the crossing near Dickinson Avenue, right beside the Peoples Trust Company, and the parking area between the shopping center and LaRose’s Service.
Pedestrian visibility is the main issue at the crossing near Dickinson Avenue. A telephone pole obstructs the start of the crossing from the south, and the crosswalk is setback on a high-traffic and relatively open area of Main Street, near the entrance to the village from Vermont Route 105.
That means pedestrians could be walking before drivers spot them, a fact of particular concern since Dickinson Avenue leads right down to the Enosburg Falls Middle/High School, making the crosswalk a regular route for walking students.
What looks like parking runs alongside that portion of Main Street, near the crossing, but it isn’t parking. Nor is it a bike route, the next logical explanation. Fenton took issue with the lack of definition in that lane — it’s unclear what it’s even there for.
That was also Fenton’s suggestion for LaRose’s — clearer definition of the service station versus the shopping center parking. Right now, the shopping center’s parking stretches indefinitely to the LaRose’s building, without clear separation between the lots.
Fenton said clearer definition could help LaRose’s gain parking spaces by eliminating drivers who might enter the shopping center by driving on to LaRose’s property and continuing on to the shopping center lot.
Fenton said that could also benefit pedestrians on the adjacent sidewalk, who could navigate set entrances and exits without having to worry about vehicles driving on and off the lot at seemingly random points.
Residents at the walk’s end seemed particularly tickled by Fenton’s suggestion that the diagonal parking on Main Street reverse its angle, so that drivers could back into parking spaces rather than pulling in, front-forward.
Fenton said that technique is so popular the state of Georgia now requires back-in spaces along its state routes. Back-in spaces remove the need to walk around vehicles, especially for children. If a driver needs something from the trunk of a vehicle, they can access the trunk from the sidewalk rather than the roadway.
That also makes it easier for drivers, who can simply look out the windshield to gauge oncoming traffic rather than struggling with their rearview or visibility issues around nearby vehicles.
The walk took, in total, about an hour and 15 minutes. Most of the walking group stuck for the entirety of that time, save for the village board, which peeled away for its regular meeting just past 6:30 p.m.
Fenton next visits the Towns of Fairfax and St. Albans and the Village of Swanton.