Thursday, June 21, 2012

Vermont Sidewalks

Compared with the other 49, Vermont is a healthy state. Vermonters live longer, have a lower infant mortality rate, and are more likely to have health insurance than most other Americans.

It is even (compared with the other 49) a thin state, with only (if "only" is the right word) 58.5 percent of the people (and 26.7 percent of the children) overweight, and 23.9 percent obese.

But when it comes to health and fitness, "compared with the other 49" sets a low bar. Compared with the rest of the prosperous world, Americans in all states are more likely to be overweight.

Furthermore, Vermont's earns its (relatively) good rating on keeping its weight down largely because the folks in Chittenden County are thinner, with "only" 20.3 percent of adults considered overweight (this from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention in 2009). Rural Vermont is fatter. In six counties, more than 25 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Orleans County tops the list at 28.8 percent.

The experts and plain old common sense agree that while there are several reasons people are overweight, two of the biggest are that they don't eat well and they don't exercise enough. Many Vermonters exercise regularly; some of them exercise obsessively. But it seems that the most common form of exercise is performed relatively little in this state: walking.

Again, experts and common sense agree that there is more than one reason why so many Vermonters appear averse to getting from here to there by putting one foot in front of the other, then repeating the process. But part of the answer has to be that in much of the state, there's no place to walk, at least not safely. There are no sidewalks.

"If you build it, they will come," said Nancy Schulz, Executive Director of the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition, using the old movie line to point out that if towns build sidewalks, people will walk more. If not, they won't. Maybe Chittenden County residents are thinner because they walk more. Maybe they walk more because they have more sidewalks.

Actually, all nine cities and most of the larger towns in the state have at least some sidewalks. And by some measurements, Vermonters actually walk more than most other Americans.

According to a study for the Washington-based Alliance for Biking and Walking, 6.7 percent of Vermonters walk or bike to work, the second highest ranking in the country after Alaska.

But satisfaction with Vermont's present level of physical fitness and its rank in the walking world would be "settling for mediocrity," said Chapin Spencer of Local Motion, the Burlington-based organization that supports more sidewalks and bike paths.

Besides, that high ranking could mask a more sedentary reality. It's no secret that Vermont is chock-full of people who care about both their health and the environment. Many of these people have the kind of flexible job schedules that makes it more convenient for them to walk to work, and most of them live in sidewalk-endowed cities. It's in the rural towns and villages where walking is both difficult and rare.

A statewide survey by the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont found that only 42.3 percent of the state's towns have any sidewalk at all. The best sidewalk coverage was in Chittenden County, the study found, where three quarters of the municipalities had sidewalks. At the other end of the spectrum, only 18.2 percent of n Addison County towns had sidewalks.

That figure probably overstates the extent of the sidewalk shortage, less because the survey was taken seven years ago – there hasn't been much sidewalk building since – than because it included the tiniest rural towns, gores and unincorporated hamlets, even those that have nothing resembling the kind of settled town or village center where sidewalks make sense.

But there aren't that many of those tiny towns in the state. So it seems that at least half of Vermont's towns and villages lack sidewalks, including some that had sidewalks a few decades or even a century ago.

"West Charlotte and lots of other Vermont towns had sidewalks 100 years ago that don't have them now," said Jim Donovan, who pored over some old maps in the course of leading the unsuccessful effort to get Charlotte to approve construction of a sidewalk along Ferry Road. "As far as we can tell, the sidewalks came out when the town widened and paved the road."

Because there is no sidewalk, Donovan said, "a lot of people will drive to one spot and then get back in their car and drive to another two blocks away."

That's common behavior in small towns all around the state, where it is inconvenient and unsafe to walk, say, from the general store to the Post Office, even if they are only 50 or 100 yards apart.

And would walking 50 or 100 yards (meaning 100 or 200, assuming round trips) now and then really matter when it comes to losing or gaining weight?

Could be. The data, while not conclusive, are persuasive. In general, where and when people walk more, obesity rates decline. And vice versa. One study showed that people who rode a bus to work were far less likely to be overweight than those who drove; apparently the short walks to and from both ends of the bus ride mattered.

A study published in 2006 in "Pediatrics," the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that, for children, "reduced access to facilities…was associated with decreased (physical activity) and increased over- weight." (That study was about physical activity facilities in general, not just sidewalks; but the conclusion would seem to apply to sidewalks).

According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, based on official statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments, "between 1966 and 2009, the number of children who walked or bicycled to school fell 75 percent while the percentage of obese children rose 276 percent."

As the saying goes, correlation is not causation, and the kids of 2009 were also eating more fast food than their counterparts in 1966, and probably spending more time in front of a screen and less on the playground. But all that walking and biking back then – and sitting in school buses now – must have had an impact.

Officials obviously think so, which is why both state and federal governments are trying to convince more children to walk to school. Part of that effort requires convincing more towns to build or improve sidewalks, so the kids can get there and back safely, and providing some money for them to accomplish the task, mostly through the Safe Routes to School program financed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Patti Coburn, the program's Vermont coordinator, said the state gets $1 million a year, most of which goes for building sidewalks. That's a lot of money, but, she acknowledged, not nearly enough to build all the sidewalks that could convince more parents to let their children walk to school.

Still, as the recent example of Charlotte shows, there is substantial opposition to building sidewalks in Vermont. To begin with, they cost money, both to build and to maintain, and while it isn't a huge amount of money (the Charlotte project would have cost $70,000 at most, Donovan said) without federal or state aid, "the burden falls mainly on local municipalities, so mostly on the property tax," said Local Motion's Chapin Spencer.

"I would argue," said Nancy Schulz, "that the tax money going to fund health care is going to go through the roof because obesity leads to so many chronic diseases." Weighing the cost of sidewalks against the alternative of higher health care costs makes the sidewalks a money-saver, she said.

That could be, though quantifying it would be a daunting task. Either way, a project financed by the local property tax is immediate and easily perceptible to the taxpayer. Health care is financed over time, and mostly by the Federal Government, where it is obscured by a host of expenditures ranging from defense to National Park rangers.

Besides, money is not the only reason some Vermonters don't want sidewalks. Some are also concerned that installing sidewalks would alter the character of a rural town or village.

"It was a lot more than just the money," said Tom Nola, the Charlotte retiree who led the forces voting down the sidewalk proposal there. "Charlotte is a rural town and it does not make any sense to have sidewalks."

Sidewalk advocates acknowledge that even where there are sidewalks, some people, including those who live only a few blocks from their work or a store, would rather drive. It just seems to be their default position.

But Schulz insisted, "if we provide places to walk, people will walk."

To a considerable extent, rural Vermont's lack of sidewalks is the consequence of decisions made decades ago, and not easily reversible. With the development of regional school districts, fewer schools were built in the settled village centers, more out on the highway. No one is proposing miles of sidewalks along rural roads.

The sidewalk question, then, is about more than just sidewalks. It's about how communities are envisioned and designed. For decades, Vermont and most of the rest of the country envisioned and designed communities around the automobile. But as Chapin Spencer said, "our vision for our community's shifts over time." He and others hope the shift includes recognition that maybe it would be a good idea, once one has driven to town, to walk from the library to the post office to the market, an idea that would seem even better were there a sidewalk.

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