This article originally appeared on PressHerald.com
If you live in southern Maine, chances are you’ve driven on Route 302 through the middle of Bridgton. But I bet you never noticed what I saw on a recent walking tour of its downtown.
There are snazzy streetlamps that shed light into the heavens, rather than down on the ground. They do a great job of creating ambience, but fail at lighting the sidewalks. There are misaligned curb cuts and crosswalks that force pedestrians to go several steps out of their way to traverse Route 302 or, more likely, risk crossing outside of the marked area.
The Bicycle Coalition of Maine organized this “walkability audit.” AARP Maine helps residents do similar surveys, with a broader focus on making communities age-friendly. Since 2014, the two groups have conducted surveys and forums on pedestrian issues in Old Orchard Beach, Kennebunk, Saco, Sanford, Damariscotta, Bar Harbor, Bangor and Portland’s Munjoy Hill.
The walking tours are a quick, easy way to raise awareness about pedestrian problems.
“I can’t think of a better way to bring people together to learn about this issue,” said Abby King, the coalition’s advocacy coordinator.
An impressive number of town decision-makers turned out for Bridgton’s audit, including three selectmen, a state representative, the town manager and a planner from the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
King said she planned the route to include “some of the good, the bad, the ugly.” Beginning at the town office, we walked past Bridgton’s elementary school, library, community center and several businesses.
Participants filled out a checklist with questions such as: Did you have room to walk? Was it easy to cross streets? Did drivers behave well?
King, wearing a hunter-orange safety vest, led our small parade across the busy intersection of 302 and Main Street, near Food City. Several people remarked on the vast expanse that we had to cross.
“I brought my tape measure,” King said, “but I don’t even think it’s long enough.”
The group had lots of ideas for making the crossing safer, from shortening the intersection to adding a pedestrian refuge in the middle and putting a countdown timer on the walk sign. Route 302 is a state road, so the Maine Department of Transportation would have to be involved in any improvements.
Behind Stevens Brook Elementary School, we followed a bumpy, rutted path to a bridge on Depot Street that crosses a stream. The pedestrian part of the bridge has no sidewalk, just cross-hatching on the pavement.
“How safe do you feel?” King asked.
Bernie King, chair of the Bridgton Board of Selectmen and (no relation to her), said he didn’t feel safe at all. “It gives people false security, having a crosswalk here,” he said.
We learned that this stretch of Depot Street was about to be resurfaced. Sadly, there was no money to do anything but repaint the walkway. Our group fantasized about replacing it with a pedestrian bridge.
At the end of the bridge, we came to the “good” part of the tour. A brand new sidewalk, smooth and wide, continues on Depot Street past the community center to Route 302.
State Rep. Phyllis Ginzler (R-Bridgton) told me the community center is “the heartbeat of Bridgton.” Hundreds of people come there every week for classes, meals and entertainment, she said. Now, they can reach the center from downtown or a nearby parking lot on a safe, wheelchair-accessible sidewalk.
The Bicycle Coalition will compile the audit results and present them to the town. They will become part of a larger “streetscape” study that looks at how Bridgton can create a more inviting downtown and get more of the 10,000 people who drive through at peak times to stop and shop.
I found the walkability audit to be both fun and enlightening. I bet nearly everyone saw more with the group than they would have on their own.
We took the 1.5-mile walk in the late afternoon, just before dusk. It would be important to check conditions at different times of the day and in different seasons, especially winter.
Both the Bicycle Coalition and AARP Maine have online tool kits that explain how you can organize a walkability audit in your community.
Find them here: Go to saferoutesinfo.org, click on Program Tools in the pull-down menu, next click on Search Resources and search for Walkability Checklist. Or go to aarp.org and search for “Sidewalks and Streets Survey.”
Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.