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Can trails really save lives and lead to better places?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/13/14 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Biking, Walking

Trails and greenways are more than ‘nice-to-haves’ they are practically lifesaving apparatus, said Mark Fenton, whose handlebar mustache matches his passionate “rants” for walk- and bikable communities.

New trails<br />Mayfield Village built a new trail and greenway along SOM Center Road in 2014. On the path are the community library, swimming pool and ball fields.

After graduating from MIT, Fenton built a career around decoding what makes communities more active.

His address to the Greater Cleveland Trails and Greenways Conference 2014 was an animated affair, spiked with data and busting popular myths like, ‘no one uses trails so why build them” and “if trails and bikeways are so popular, how come the private market doesn’t demand more?”

“The market is telling us it's desirable,” said the host of the PBS series "America's Walking." He offered examples of companies—from Progressive Insurance to LL Bean—who've built corporate campuses threaded with bike paths.

“Look at these home sale classified ads. Proximity is now included in every listing. Proximity to bike paths, too."

Covering mega-trends for the decade, On Common Ground, a magazine from the National Association of Realtors, features a young women on a bike with a baguette in the front basket.

“Realtors are hearing, ‘I want to be able to not start my car for every trip.’”

It’s not enough to have bike trails that lead into the woods, Fenton quickly adds. The best bike trails link up to destinations. Seamlessly connecting to bike lanes and sidewalks are important to boosting the ‘stickiness’, or, getting people of all ages and abilities to try biking. The communities that figure out how to build activity into people’s routines will come out ahead, Fenton promises.

“We need Complete Streets to get us there, “ he said. “We’re looking not at the suburban model, but the main street model.”

Building more main streets like in Hudson could be a model for retrofitting suburbs. In surveys, walking was selected by older women as a desirable way to get their daily recommended 30 minutes of activity, with grocery store and park/trail chosen as the top destinations.

As a footnote, GCBL reported in 2011 on a "Swapping tailpipes for pedals" study that Dr. Jonathan Patz, a lead author of the IPCC's report on climate, calculated that if 30 million people shifted half of their trips from a car to a bike, it would save 400 lives and $4 billion in mortality and health care costs.

Zoning and land use are part of Fenton’s recommendation to make walking the easy choice. “Is there a connector from sidewalk to front door? Are buildings near the sidewalk? I always say, if there is a bench and trees, a water fountain and restroom along the way, my mom will walk.”

He adds that these "functional elements" shouldn't be viewed as just add ons. He points out that developers are required by law to put in sewer lines, but not sidewalks. “No one says, ‘let’s go back to open pit toilets, but as soon as a developer asks for a variance to not put in sidewalks, the city grants it. No more, I say.”

It will take an outpouring of support from people who ‘have the backs’ of elected and appointed officials who do say ‘no more’, Fenton adds, to make change happen.

Fenton also recommends that communities reform the way that shopping center developments count up parking spots.

“Instead of a traffic impact analysis, make it a multi-modal transportation analysis,” Fenton advises. “How many pedestrian, bike and transit trips are possible?”

The idea is to challenge the assumptions about parking and requirements that developments have a minimum number of spaces available. If multi-modal trips are estimated, it might lead to development with less parking, which in turn will save the developer money (which could be redirected to necessities like crosswalks and bike lanes).

“We blame the traffic engineers but it’s what we asked for,” Fenton concludes. “The engineers know how to design to slow things down, like mid-block crosswalks. Engage the private sector in this. It’s about how we make the healthy choice the default choice.”

More coverage of the Trails and Greenways conference to come...

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