Rail-trail could reduce dependency on cars
By Nick Tabor, New Era Senior Staff Writer
Some winter days, Jane Hall, 83, puts on long johns and a sweater and two coats before going out. Ignoring the wind, she walks to the grocery store, Dollar General, her bank or her doctor’s office.
Hall walks everywhere. Her habits were forged in the 1930s and ‘40s, in rural parts of the county, when the roads were dirt and mule-driven wagons were common.
Hopkinsville has sped up around her. Now most streets are paved, have high speed limits and are mainly for automobiles. She admits her routes are unsafe, as they lack sidewalks, but she never learned to drive.
“People just too lazy to walk,” she said in her living room. “They’d drive their cars to the mailbox if they could.”
But like most people, she takes infrastructure for granted.
City officials recognize many parts of Hopkinsville encourage driving over walking. As in many U.S. cities, especially rural ones, civil engineering — speed limits, road width, signage — often treats walking as an afterthought at best.
The city rates 34 out of 100 on Walk Score, an Internet service that makes calculations from geographic data. Some parts of town rate higher or lower, but the total score gives it the designation “car-dependent.”
Certain public health studies suggest a city’s friendliness toward walkers and bicyclists — not just for exercise, but for transportation — is no less important than access to healthy food and recreational facilities. It shapes people’s habits.
Seeing this need, the Christian County Health Department may contribute money to the rail-trail conversion.
In public forums, most conversation surrounding the trail has focused on its potential for exercising. But the designers also intend it as a means of transportation, a path for reaching destinations.
The trail would make Hopkinsville more walkable.
Safety, access, aesthetics
Peter Lagerwey, a transportation engineer who was once bicycle-walking coordinator for the city of Seattle, says three basic factors determine walkability: safety, accessibility and aesthetics.
All three are hard to quantify, but a few numbers do help.
Sidewalks help with safety by getting walkers away from traffic. The city has 65 miles worth of sidewalks, said Terry Rudd, superintendent of the Hopkinsville Street Division, in an interview last year.
A number of neighborhoods developed in the 1960s and ’70s — such as Deepwood, Hunting Creek, Givens Addition, Indian Hills, Holiday Park and the Springmont area — have no sidewalks. But in the last few years, as part of the Residential Enterprise Zone program, the city has required developers to include sidewalks in new neighborhoods to qualify for incentives.
Steve Bourne, director of Community and Development Services, mentioned several new subdivisions that have benefited from this policy — Daven Drive (west of the Hopkinsville Country Club and LaFayette Road), Sivley Trace, and the Villas, across from the YMCA.
Last year the city had 12 accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians, including one fatal accident and seven others with injuries, said Officer Paul Ray, spokesman for the Hopkinsville Police Department.
By accessibility, Lagerwey means being able to reach destinations by walking. If a neighborhood has a safe, quiet street that loops around in a circle, it’s fine for exercise but doesn’t really improve walkability.
“You need to be able to get where you want to go,” Lagerwey said.
Downtown Hopkinsville has its restaurants, its bars, a coffee shop, a book store, furniture shops and some other businesses. But only one grocery store — Piggly Wiggly — is nearby. Downtown has no movie theater, no laundromat and limited choices for buying clothes.
Even if they lived in the city’s center, hardly anyone could get by in Hopkinsville for more than a week or two without depending on a car or taking their chances on busy streets.
The city has made recent strides to make downtown more attractive. For instance, it put a foot bridge over Little River behind the West Seventh Street Park and cleared trees in front of the Christian County Courthouse to give a clear, attractive view from Sixth Street. New signs will go up soon in green and red tones that match the signs chosen for the rail-trail.
But ultimately, everyone has to judge Hopkinsville’s aesthetic qualities for themselves.
The railroad bed destined for the rail-trail runs north and south through Hopkinsville. For the first phase, 3 miles long, the city would put a trailhead at Pardue Lane, then pave the area that runs north beyond Cox Mill Road and Canton Street, to North Drive.
There it makes a T, with one side extending west to the North Drive park and the other going east to Westside Park, connecting with the river trail bordering downtown on the west.
Given all the neighborhoods that surround it southwest of downtown, hundreds of residents could walk there from home.
From the trail’s south end, walkers could easily reach North Drive restaurants like Da Vinci Little Italian and Pizz-A-Roma — without crossing busy streets.
On the other hand, for most people who live close enough to downtown to walk there, the trail won’t provide a more efficient route. Nor does it connect to the dense business districts on Fort Campbell Boulevard and West Seventh Street.
Later extensions, which will pave the trail all the way down to the Eagle Way bypass, might help people reach downtown without cars.
Lose & Associates, the Nashville firm that designed the trail, has done similar projects all over the southeastern U.S. In Nashville and Murfreesboro, Tenn., where the trails lead into downtown from the suburbs, people love relying on them instead of driving.
“They get tons of use for that,” he said.
Lagerwey said the key is to integrate rail-trails with safe, walkable roads.
“They’re always part of a network,” he said. “You’re never going to have a rail-trail to everybody’s front door and everybody’s place of business.”
Often city dwellers can reach their local trails by walking a mile or less.
On Lagerwey’s other criteria, safety and aesthetics, Hopkinsville’s rail-trail could score high. It would prohibit motor vehicles, and most of it lies in the woods.
Two Yale researchers published a study in December, showing people who used “active transportation” — such as walking or bicycling — tended to have lower body mass indexes and lower odds of hypertension.
They found that people who engaged in more than 150 minutes of active transportation each week were 30 percent less likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes.
They called active transportation “an untapped reservoir of opportunity for physical activity for many adults.”
By examining data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, they discovered less than a quarter of U.S. adults surveyed used active transportation continuously for 10 minutes in a typical week.
In a meeting last week of the Christian County Board of Health, officials talked about a study in which the healthiness of Christian County’s environment ranked 116th out of the state’s 120 counties.
But the study accounts for many factors, including the prevalence of fast food and availability of healthy food. It does a poor job of accounting for recreation facilities; for instance, it doesn’t count YMCAs.
The Yale study suggests it was perceptive to consider walkability.
The board of health did not set a precise timeline for deciding whether to contribute money. Meanwhile, the city is beginning to seek funds from local businesses. Mayor Dan Kemp hopes the city council will vote this spring to pay for the remainder with city funds.
In the best-case scenario, construction could start in the late spring and end around November, Kemp said.