Rural Walking in Massachusetts

Rural Walking in Massachusetts

By Stacey Beuttell/Deputy Executive Director, WalkBoston 

WalkBoston began its work in rural communities with the publication of “Rural Walking in Massachusetts.” Historically walking was the primary mode of travel in rural areas, so town boundaries were drawn an acceptable three-mile walking distance around the town center. Today, the car has taken over as the primary mode of transportation for rural residents. As a result many roadways are now dangerous for people walking to town and development patterns add challenges.

Challenge 1: People must walk along narrow roads with no sidewalks to reach everyday destinations. The topography, drainage, and land ownership make widening roads complicated and sometimes impossible. Even if a road were wide enough, community resources may not be prioritized for walking.

To accommodate all users safely on narrow rights-of-way two design recommendations may apply:
• Pedestrian lane: pavement striping to create space for walkers on the roadway itself
• Shared roadway or yield street: an unmarked road (no lines) designed to serve people walking, biking, and driving within the roadway.

These strategies are typically used on residential streets with low traffic volumes. The Urban, Rural and Suburban Complete Streets Design Manual for the City of Northampton and Communities in Hampshire County has specific design information and graphic examples.

Challenge 2: State-owned roads are the main streets of many rural communities.
 Since many rural towns do not own these roads, the local government has limited control over design, maintenance, or speed limits on their main streets. This makes it difficult to implement infrastructure changes that slow traffic and improve pedestrian safety, goals that many of the communities we’ve worked with are hoping to achieve.

MassDOT’s Complete Streets Funding Program provides money to make short-term, low cost road improvements, but this funding cannot be used on state-owned roads. This is because all MassDOT-owned roads are already required to adopt a complete streets design approach. Municipalities are dependent on the state’s interpretation of a complete streets design for these main streets – and more significantly, improvements happen on the state’s timeline.

Despite these limitations, WalkBoston encourages communities to pass Complete Streets policies. A Complete Streets policy is an effective tool to improve pedestrian safety and community walkability. With a policy in place, cities and towns demonstrate their commitment to the approach.

As we learn of barriers to walking that are specific to rural communities, WalkBoston will continue to advocate for solutions that address these issues and allow rural communities to take advantage of the funding initiatives and legislative changes that suburban and urban communities already enjoy.

This article was featured in WalkBoston’s October 2017 newsletter.
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