FAIRFAX – As the sun set Wednesday night in the Town of Fairfax, a herd of about two-dozen walkers came to a halt at the corner of Maple Street and Main Street, near a slice of undeveloped town property slated to become a small park in the near future.
At the front stood Mark Fenton, a renowned walking expert fresh off of a tour of the town’s village area. After only a day in Fairfax, he already had a long list of ideas for the “Walkable Fairfax” town officials have pressed for.
He suggested curb extensions on the intersection of Hunt Street and Main Street, advisory lanes painted along the shoulders of Maple Street and even a roundabout in the heart of the village’s largest intersection.
Maybe most important, however, was his suggestion about just who should be advocating for these improvements.
“This has to be a community led process,” he said, directing his comments more toward the Fairfax residents at the core of their tour group. “Your hands have to be on this.”
Fenton, a veteran of the U.S. national racewalking team with a research background in athletic and exercise science, was invited to Fairfax by the Vermont Dept. of Health, the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and the lifestyle advocacy group RiseVT to “audit” Fairfax’s walkability.
His tour took him around the village area in Fairfax, starting at the Fairfax Community Center on Main Street before winding down Hunt Street toward Bellows Free Academy and eventually looping back to Main Street by-way-of Maple Street.
According to Fenton, Americans and especially kids have grown increasingly less physically active in the past several decades, leading to swelling obesity rates and a Centers for Disease Control-supported prediction that a third of the kids born today will develop type 2 diabetes.
Those changes were something Fenton said communities were struggling with nationwide, and one that the common responses of sports programs or encouraging people to exercise had proven incapable of addressing.
The answer, he said, was to instead build the infrastructure where people could get regular activity regardless of the context. “You can build environments where people get activity as a part of their lives,” Fenton said.
Even before Fenton arrived in Fairfax, the town had explored doing just that.
In the last year, the town extended sidewalks from its village core north toward the Fairfax Community Center, and town manager Brad Docheff has sought to build momentum off that completed project through “Walkable Fairfax,” a loosely-defined initiative encompassing everything from trail improvements in the town’s 100-Acre Woods to the design of a parklet in the village’s center.
Those sidewalks hosted the first steps of Fenton’s tour, starting at the Fairfax Community Center and tracing Main Street toward Ross’s Auto Repair and, afterward, to the corner of Hunt Street and Main Street, where the village’s first crosswalk reaches over Main Street.
During drop-off and pick-up times at the nearby Bellows Free Academy, the Hunt Street intersection reportedly explodes with traffic, and speeding on Main Street was anecdotally a significant problem throughout Fairfax’s village.
An easy solution, Fenton suggested, were curb extensions, similar to those framing crosswalks in St. Albans City’s downtown.
He traced the outline of a hypothetical curb extension that would be matched on the opposite end of the street. According to Fenton, those extensions could increase the visibility of the crosswalk and stagger traffic somewhat as it races south through Fairfax or down Hunt Street toward BFA.
Fenton also said it was a place where the town could also take an inexpensive first step with a temporary curb extension, made from rubber barriers set into the road to provide a sort of demonstration that could later be used to sway the Agency of Transportation into physically paving those extensions.
A walk down Hunt Street, meanwhile, revealed sidewalks that were, according to residents, too narrow but unlikely to be expanded, though the bottom of Hunt Street had room for some kind of buffer between the road and sidewalk.
Fenton also floated the idea of a “satellite location” for pick-up from BFA, something that, paired with a staggered release schedule that favored buses and pedestrians, could reduce some of the vehicle traffic that made Hunt Street – and the village as a whole – so challenging for walkers during school dismissals.
Hunt Street also provided an important hub for the town, Fenton suggested, as it led towards BFA, the town’s recreation park and connected with some of the densest residential areas in Fairfax.
After that, Fenton was led away from BFA and down Maple Street, a narrow residential street perforated by both a formal trailhead for Fairfax’s recreational path and an informal trail through someone’s yard that led toward the Steeple Market.
At one point, according to town manager Docheff, it was actually a one-way road.
The group, including residents from Maple Street, discussed everything from advisory lanes clearly delineating a path for walkers – another relatively cheap solution – to returning Maple Street to a one-way road.
Those Maple Street residents appeared to approve both.
Maybe the most dramatic suggestion Fenton brought to Fairfax was for the downtown intersection of Maple Street and Main Street, a confusing four-way intersection with an island stuck in the middle.
One of those streets provided the main artery toward the Town of Fletcher.
“The state is aware that this is a challenging intersection,” Docheff admitted as the tour came to a halt
Fenton’s answer, beyond the crosswalk Fairfax already has planned to bridge the road, was a roundabout, which could slow traffic as it passed through and make it so pedestrians were only crossing one lane of traffic at a time.
If it was curbed right, Fenton said a roundabout should accommodate the semi-traffic that passes through, a common criticism levied against roundabouts.
Any kind of roundabout would have to be a state-led project, Fenton said, but the town, using some neatly organized hay bales, might be able to make a temporary demonstration that could help sway the state in their favor.
“We can’t dance around that anymore”
Fairfax officials present noted a tension behind making their village area more walkable: any improvements made in the village would only directly support a fraction of the town’s population at the expense of the whole town.
After some prodding, Fenton gave a long-winded answer he was saving for the end of their tour, underscoring how pedestrian infrastructure came with common benefits that spilled into everything from economics to the environment.
“In the beginning, we used to say, here’s a portion that does need to walk or bike, and we need to make it safe for them and it’s equitable,” Fenton said. “Now my answer is that you don’t have to use it, but you’re going to benefit from it.
“Every kid who is walking or biking to school is one less vehicle you have to compete with as you’re entering town. It’s one less parking space in front of the Stone’s Throw Pizza… that you’re competing with. It’s air quality emissions you don’t have to breath.
“The greenhouse gases emitted by their car aren’t going to flood your house in the next spring’s floods on the Lamoille and Missisquoi [Rivers], which we know are coming with greater and greater frequency.
“All of that you benefit from even if you never use that trail,” Fenton concluded. “Everything I just said is true, and we cannot dance around that anymore.”
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