Napanee’s Aaron Fenney presented the results of a walking audit he recently organized in the town at the Town Council’s Regular Meeting this week, to the applause of some on Council and the consternation of others.
The audit, which was undertaken by a group of fifteen volunteers on the afternoon of Friday, Sep. 29, 2023, was the result of a previous presentation by Fenney asking the town to consider increasing the importance of walkability of the town in future infrastructure planning.
Fenney reintroduced the concept of the walking audit at the Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, meeting, saying that it was meant to “provide insight into the condition of pedestrian infrastructure in two of the key neighbourhoods in Napanee,” as well as “to demonstrate concept and value of walking audits as direct tools which should be incorporated into the Town’s planning and maintenance process.”
“Data and technical manuals are certainly important, but nothing can ever replace personally taking a walk around and seeing how things are for yourself,” he explained.
The routes selected for the audit travelled between the historic Town Hall building in Market Square and the new Town administrative building at 99 Advance Avenue.
The group met at Market Square for an initial assessment of that space, and then travelled up John Street until reaching Graham Street, evaluating the conditions for pedestrian traffic along the route. Next, they travelled along Centre Street until reaching Advance Avenue, and concluded with an audit of the space at 99 Advance Avenue. Fenney pointed out that this “provided a good comparison of two locations of similar function, and two routes by which someone might navigate the town.”
Fenney and his fellow volunteers used the Walking Audit Toolkit produced by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which notes, “walkability is an important issue to AARP because older adults — along with people of colour and residents of low-income communities — are disproportionately the victims of fatal motor vehicle crashes involving pedestrians. In fact, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rates of pedestrian deaths in vehicle crashes per 100,000 people are highest for those age 70 or older.”
Fenney reported that comparison of the two civic building sites provided a “pretty stark contrast.” The group found that Market Square, despite needing some sidewalk repairs and crosswalk refreshes, was ultimately an inviting and safe place to walk with elderly people or young children. He added that one participant in the audit appreciated the sidewalk cuts that allowed her to navigate easily with a stroller.
In contrast, Fenney noted, the space in front of 99 Advance Avenue “is quite hostile to one on foot. There are no sidewalks whatsoever, presenting the choice of standing on the roadway or in the ditch. We were fortunate to have good weather, making the ditch an option, which would not exist in winter or on a rainy day.”
On Advance Avenue, “pedestrian traffic has been completely ignored,” Fenney said. And yet, he noted, “the entrance to the parking lot [shows there was clearly an intent] in the design for sidewalks” to exist there.
As with the comparison of the civic building sites, comparing the two walking routes connecting those locations provided additional insights. Fenney noted that Centre Street is “a major thoroughfare, so traffic along it moves at high speed, is often quite heavy, and industrial traffic is quite common. The ability of this traffic to lose control and leave the road was evidenced by large pieces of debris found on the sidewalk and lawns from previous collisions.”
“Also,” Fenney pointed out, “Centre Street presents a highly effective barrier to pedestrians, cutting the town in two. The crossing at Graham Street, used by students walking to and from school, is largely ignored by drivers. Maybe one in 20 will actually yield to a waiting pedestrian.”
Centre street traffic was not the only problem spot, he noted: “Cars travel on Advance Avenue at significant speed… automobiles are the undisputed kings. In fact, Advance Avenue is so dangerous to pedestrians that our volunteer with the child in the stroller was unwilling to join us, leaving the audit to continue home by a safer route.”
By comparison, John Street has much better traffic and wider sidewalks, he said.
“The sidewalks have also been neglected for some time, though they were wide enough in most places for a pair of walkers side-by-side to comfortably pass by one another,” Fenney explained.
However, a key drawback of the John Street route is that it dead-ends at the train station. Pedestrians are either forced to cross the tracks illegally to reach Advance Avenue, or climb down a steep embankment to the Centre Street sidewalk, under the tracks.
Fenney noted, “The audit conducted on the 29th was simple. It was intended to serve as a proof of concept; walking audits are a valuable tool that shed critical light on often overlooked aspects of town infrastructure. It’s too easy to overlook the hazards, difficulties, and indignities inflicted upon those on foot when we see our town through only our windshields.”
“Walking audits should become a part of the official town maintenance cycle… and the results incorporated into the maintenance and construction plans,” he continued in conclusion.
“The ability to access homes, businesses, and town services is a basic necessity for all people regardless of age ability or finances; walking or rolling in a wheelchair is the most basic form of access… Street design, more than any other factor, determines whether that space is safe and inviting, or dangerous and hostile. I, for one, would prefer to live in a town which was safe and inviting, and I’m sure you would too.”
With that, it was Council’s turn to comment and question Fenney on his presentation. Councillor Angela Hicks began by saying she had taken part in the audit with Fenney and the other volunteers.
“I don’t consider myself elderly yet,” she stated, “But I can tell you that walking on Centre Street was terrifying… my instinct was to push the girl with the stroller onto the grass.”
She noted that she supports taking walkability into deeper account and continuing these audits as Greater Napanee develops.
Councillor Dave Pinnell asked a few clarifying questions about the makeup of the group who participated in the audit, who were noted to be mostly mature adults of retirement age. Then he moved on to more questions he said he considered “touchy.”
First, he asked Fenney why he had not provided a picture of 99 Advance Avenue in his presentation, or any others of that street, aside from the photo of the intersection of Advance and Centre Street.
Fenney explained, “The area around Advance Avenue is pretty similar throughout. As I mentioned, there is a bit of a sidewalk in front of 99 Advance… The difference between there and perhaps up the block is not considerably different.”
Pinnell responded, “In your report, you’re stating that you’re either on the road or you’re in a ditch. [However] there is a bit of a gravel side, too, in that area… I would have liked to see in your report the actual picture of 99 Advance.”
Pinnell also took umbrage with the audit volunteers’ descriptions of crossing the railway track, harkening back to a time when there was no underpass (which was built nearly 50 years ago) and cars had to cross over the tracks, saying the underpass was a “considerable upgrade,” and he “took it to heart” that people felt unsafe crossing the tracks there.
This led Fenney to point out that it wasn’t the underpass itself that felt unsafe, it was the various choices of how one gets to it – via Centre Street with high-speed traffic and narrow sidewalks, or via a steep embankment.
“There was one thing that I did appreciate that you said regarding the school crossings,” Pinnell reflected. “We have two crosswalks here in town. And I don’t think that the residents know what to do.”
Pinnell noted that one crosswalk on Centre Street “has a crossing guard… [but] during off hours, there’s no crossing guards, and people just think that they can get through there. So we need to have a clear definition of whether we only stop when there’s a crossing guard, or we stop when there’s somebody standing there.”
Councillor Mike Schenk agreed with the findings of this first audit, saying that sidewalks and other infrastructure for mobility need to be looked at and improved incrementally as time and money permits.
Councillor Bill Martin wondered aloud if drivers, rather than street design, were to blame for the unsafe feelings of pedestrians on Centre Street: “Is it not just driver habits, and not a problem with infrastructure?”
Fenney pointed out that he believes that the infrastructure informs our decision-making when we are driving.: When you’re on a street, you’re going to be subconsciously absorbing the signals that it sends to you. A wide, straight lane is going to encourage you to speed up; you’re going to feel more comfortable. Whereas a narrower street, or one that has a more irregular surface, is going to cause you to slow down.”
Martin debated the merits of that argument, saying he felt wider roadways were safer to drive on. “I know we’re not 100 per cent perfect here in town, but I think our sidewalks and roadways [have] improved quite a bit over the years.”
Hicks seemed to grow a bit frustrated with the other councillors who had not participated in the audit themselves, challenging them to take the same walk with her on Centre Street.
“I think you and I could not walk on the sidewalk together, Bill [Martin]… None of us could walk side by side. The sidewalk is literally two feet wide, and you have exactly nine seconds on the walk signal to get from the south side of the area to the north side,” she said.
“I was quite enlightened at the end of the audit. So if Council would like to do this, I would be more than happy to walk it again – terror and all! It’s an eye-opener. I had never personally walked that [route] before, and I’ve lived in Napanee my whole life.”
Mayor Terry Richardson thanked Fenney, and Council noted and received his presentation.
As always, you can find out more by watching the Town of Greater Napanee’s Council meetings online from the comfort of your home on YouTube, or you can attend in person. Meeting agendas and minutes can be found on the Town website.