Adopting Complete Streets in Herkimer County & Other Rural Communities

by Alison J. Swartz

During a recent drive into work, I noticed a woman running on the side of the road dressed in a fluorescent yellow vest with reflectors on her back and arms, dressed with all the proper running gear. This particular road is seven miles long and is a very narrow town roadway with no shoulders. Its width allows two cars to meet and pass one another with the outer tires barely scuffing the edge where the pavement meets the gravel. I was especially alarmed when two cars ahead of me (traveling in opposite directions) met each other by this runner and forced her to run into the ditch, because neither car was willing to stop and wait a few seconds to allow one or the other to pass through.

Three years ago, if I mentioned the words Complete Streets to mayors, town supervisors, highway superintendents, and to my own friends and family, many of them would tilt their heads and look at me and say, ‘What are you talking about?’ or ‘Why should small communities like ours invest in Complete Streets?’ and ‘We don’t even have sidewalks on some of our roads, so this really doesn’t pertain to us!’ It applies to all of us, especially if we live, work, play, and learn in a rural area!

The term Complete Streets is defined by Smart Growth America as “roadways that are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities” (Smart Growth America, 2014). And in 2011, New York State adopted Complete Streets law to protect all who use local streets. Herkimer County HealthNet understands that if the roadways are safer, more people will feel comfortable utilizing them, they’ll sneak in a little more physical activity, and live among a healthier environment. There also tends to be a greater impact for behavioral change when the environment itself is changed, or there is a policy in place to help enforce change.

While some communities in Herkimer County have indoor and outdoor fitness facilities, trails, playgrounds and other public spaces where families can play a sport on a ball field, rollerblade or stroll on a smooth surface, swing on a swing set or slide down a slide, there are still a great number of people who may not have access to these locations nor afford the fees associated with them. Through many meetings, workshops, educational pieces, etc. Herkimer County HealthNet has been working on encouraging local municipalities to adopt Complete Streets, so residents can walk outside their doors and access the streets they live on, whether taking the dog for a walk, choosing to ride a bicycle to work, school, or to the bank, or just simply trying to cross the street to get to the mail box.

Seven communities have recently adopted Complete Streets in Herkimer County through the Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work and Play Grant. Herkimer County HealthNet awarded crosswalk signage, recreation signage, and bicycle racks to the municipalities that adopted Complete Streets and committed to taking into consideration all users of the roadways when planning and constructing future roadways in their municipalities.

The Village of Ilion, Herkimer County’s first community to adopt Complete Streets in 2011, understands the importance of Complete Streets and has made significant changes to village roadways over the past few years. New intersections with curb cut-outs for ramps, crosswalk signage, and striping allow pedestrians, strollers, and wheelchairs safer crossing within a one-mile radius of the high school. Where the sidewalks end and shoulders of the road begin are now lined with signage that reads, “Share the Road” or “school crossing” ahead have been installed in various areas along this route, alerting motorists and encouraging traffic calming. A newly constructed bridge adjacent to the high school’s property now allows a large width of space for pedestrians to cross at the same time as motorists and buses.

The Town of Webb is another success story for adopting Complete Streets. HealthNet’ s partners in this rural town took Complete Streets to higher level in a few of the hamlets and villages within the town, while considering safety and sharing the roadway. They’re connecting the main streets and some side streets to connect to other public play spaces, to ball fields, walking & hiking trails, school and public playgrounds, a public beach, and the farmers’ market locations. Users can opt to change their mode of transportation throughout these communities a few times from one end of the town to the other.

The challenge remains, but I think that we are making headway in areas that are very rural, where there are no traffic lights, road striping, road shoulders, bicycle lanes, etc. However, there are opportunities to work toward completing streets no matter the municipality’s size, and Herkimer County HealthNet will continue to encourage more decision-makers of rural communities to think of creative ways to support this effort. Reducing speed limits in certain areas, painting center stripes on roads without any striping, installing signs that say, ‘Share the Road,’ or ‘Children at Play’, and providing literature for motorists to ‘watch for pedestrians’ and for pedestrians to ‘watch for motorists’ are among a few good ideas for community leaders to think about as they commit to completing streets in their neighborhoods.

Alison J. Swartz is the Project Manager of the Creating Healthy Places Grant at Herkimer County HealthNet, Inc.

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