BENNINGTON -- Several plans are in the works to make Bennington County a safer place for pedestrians.
Bennington County Regional Commission employees and two AmeriCorps VISTA members have joined together in a "walkability campaign" which targets Bennington County as a whole, but focuses on four main projects that would yield enormous impact locally.
According to BCRC Regional Planner and Transportation Manager Mark Anders, the four projects include a walking path from the Applegate housing complex to the Willowbrook Apartment complex, a Bennington-North Bennington bike path, dubbed the Ninja Bicycle Path, sidewalks along Kocher Drive, and the Bennington Pathway, which will connect downtown Bennington to the Northside Drive shopping district.
These four projects will serve to increase the "walkability" factors within these areas, which are presently unsafe for pedestrians, according to Anders and AmeriCorps VISTA member Mickey McGlasson.
In the case of the Applegate to Willowbrook path, the project will not only allow residents in both complexes safe access to the outside world, but also provide children of both complexes a safe pathway on which to walk to the Molly Stark School.
Anders explained that children of Applegate are currently bused to the Molly Stark School, which is less than half a mile away, because Orchard Road, the road which connects Applegate to the school, is unsafe for walking.
According to Anders, Molly Stark suffers from a high rate of absenteeism, which is a problem directly related to the current lack of a safe pedestrian pathway in the area.
Anders said that if children miss the bus, they often are forced to skip school because a guardian with other means of transportation has already left for work.
The project, which has tentatively been approved by the boards of both Applegate and Willowbrook for an estimated cost of $88,000, according to Anders, will create a healthy alternative for all 107 children of the Applegate community to travel to school, thus reducing Molly Stark's current absenteeism rate.
In addition, this project, as well as the BCRC's other projects, will also improve public health by encouraging public activity, McGlasson explained, noting that approximately 8 percent of Bennington County residents have type 2 diabetes.
According to America Walks, a national resource which "fosters walkable communities by engaging, educating, and connecting walking advocates," the percentage of children walking to school has decreased considerably from 66 percent to 13 percent since 1970.
To boot, obesity rates in U.S. have more than doubled during this time.
Census.gov notes that 3.3 million people nationwide already use walking as their primary means of transportation, and the percentage of adults walking for transportation, fun, or exercise is constantly increasing.
According to a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest nonprofit devoted to public health research, every $1 spent on building walking paths and biking trails in Vermont could save approximately $3 in obesity-related medical expenses.
BCRC staff, as well as McGlasson and his fellow AmeriCorps VISTA member Rachel Schindler, hope that the construction of these walking and biking trails will both encourage and inspire Bennington residents to incorporate more walking into their daily routines.
"I think that walking is definitely one of the most accessible forms of exercise," said Schindler. "Its so easy because it doesn't require any extra equipment and it doesn't cost anything to do."
The BCRC, in partnership with the Vermont Department of Health, among other local organizations, will sponsor a presentation Thursday, Oct. 24, at 6 p.m. known as, "A Walkable Bennington" led by nationally recognized author and walking enthusiast Mark Fenton.
Vermont Department of Health District Director Christine Bongartz said the Bennington Office of Local Health is pleased to be involved in the evening and is in support of its cause.
"We need to make changes to our physical environment and provide more opportunities for people to be physically active on a daily basis," she said, adding that recent studies show a 35 percent increase in physical activity among people who live in communities that have inviting, safe environments for walking, exercise and play. "Mark Fenton's presentation helps support our vision for Healthy Vermonters living in healthy communities."
During the presentation, which will take place at the Mount Anthony Country Club, Fenton will specifically address local "walkability" issues in the Bennington area, speak about the health benefits of walking, and explain the importance of the projects the BCRC has in the works.
According to Anders, Fenton will tour the community prior to the event and identify locations in the community that should be addressed in terms of walkability, if they have not already been identified by the BCRC.
McGlasson said the event will be donation-based but is not meant to serve as a fundraiser for their projects.
"This event is really about raising awareness for what we're doing," he said. "It should be a fun evening, but one where we hope to gain some serious support from the community."
The event is open to the public but organizers ask that those interested in attending RSVP by Friday, Oct. 18, by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the BCRC at 802-442-0713.
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey.