Most of downtown Hamilton is pedestrian friendly, but there are areas in need of significant improvements, a group of auditors determined on Friday.

A Building Active Communities Initiative workshop was held in Bozeman in March, giving Hamilton citizens in attendance a vision for improving the community and the health of its citizens.

The last week of April, Hamilton City Council member Jenny West did a survey of all the Hamilton schools on how children got to school.

“Seventy-one percent were transported by cars, 28 percent by buses and only 1 to 2 percent walked or rode bikes,” she said. “Why aren’t kids walking to school?”

“The city has done a lot already,” said West. “On Tuesday, the City Council just passed a Complete Street Resolution – a document that considers pedestrians, bikes and ADA when planning.”

On Friday, at the open invitation of West, 15 people gathered to participate in a walking audit.

Using various modes of transportation, including two electric wheelchairs, a stroller, bikes and walking, they evaluated the accessibility and ‘walkabilty’ of downtown Hamilton.

Melinda Barnes, executive director of Bike Walk Montana, in Helena, came to guide the audit and help assessors see the good, the bad and the ugly in Hamilton.

“We are partnering with the Department of Health in the Building Active Communities Initiative,” said Barnes. “We are helping to make communities healthier through environments – more bike friendly, pedestrian friendly, things like that.”

Barnes said that Hamilton is “doing phenomenal things for biking and walking.”

“It is really exciting and they are on a good path. Hamilton is leaps and bounds ahead of other communities,” she said. “It is neat to come here and see everything that you are doing.

“Way back when communities were started, people walked and everything was built within walking distance. But then people became more dependent on cars and our communities started growing outwards. Sidewalks stopped being built. Urban centers grew on the edge of town. Communities became less healthy have more chronic disease. Now the Department of Public Health and the CDC [Center for Disease Control] is saying we need to start getting people more active. One way is to build our communities so they are more walk able again.

“Hopefully, we’ll see a downturn in medical costs. It is proven – communities that have gotten behind this are seeing those trends.”

The auditors agreed that what made the intersection near City Hall great were trees, shade, a bench and a wide sidewalk with easy access. Using that as the standard, they then set out on a jaunt about town: Second to Bedford to Fourth to Main to Marcus.

They took a detailed look at downtown walking routes and how they felt about their journey. Most sidewalks and intersections received good scores.

Along the route, they checked for accessibility for everyone (wheelchairs, elderly, children), condition of the sidewalks, continuity (checking for breaks in the sidewalks or if they connected to each other) and comfort (did they want to walk there, did they feel safe).

Mary Millin, of the Summit Independent Living Center, and LaRoy Williamson and Richard Frisbie, both peer advocates for Summit and both in electric wheelchairs, came to help with the audit.

“It is really great to have a couple of individuals in wheelchairs along,” said Barnes. “It is really hard for us to have the perspective and recognize additional barriers that people in wheelchairs experience. It’s a good demonstration and it makes me more aware of things we have to keep in mind when we are designing our streets.”

Auditors discovered slanted sidewalks, no sidewalks, too high of curbs, uneven sidewalks and a few 90-degree corners that made getting around town difficult for Frisbie and Williamson.

On occasion, all the auditors had to go out into the street to continue along the chosen route.

On the plus side, were some really great intersections and sharrows (symbols on the road meaning that bikes can use the whole lane).

Bob Cron, on both the Ravalli County Parks and Board and the Healthy Community Connections, said he is a strong advocate for sidewalks that are five feet wide.

“Two wheelchairs or bikes passing one another need that much room,” he said. “There is a real social reason and I just don’t go for less than five feet.”

“And that is now the city standard,” assured Dennis Stranger, City Planner/Special Projects Director.

“The city has committed a significant amount of money to improving sidewalks,” said Barnes. “There are minimum standards, then there are standards that are better than that. Do we go above and beyond minimum standards?”

The group consensus was that although it had 12-foot-wide sidewalks, the north side of Main Street was difficult to maneuver through because of the clutter: sandwich boards, trash cans, benches, light poles and bike racks.

At the end of the audit, the plan was to go to the Hamilton Brew Pub for lunch.

When the group walked from Main and crossed over Highway 93 to Marcus, they had serious difficulties.

There were no sidewalks, so they had to walk in the street - a narrow road with lots of fast traffic. Then they had to cross the railroad tracks – very difficult for the wheelchairs. The group agreed it felt very unsafe.

Stranger, in fact, said Marcus Street is a concern for city officials.

“The city and the county have requested the highway department to reconstruct Marcus all the way from Highway 93 to Freeze Lane and Big Corral Road,” he said. “It would probably cost around a couple of million dollars to reconstruct this road – we haven’t priced it yet. The State Highway Department would be doing that for us. When it is completed it would be to the standards: curbs, gutters, sidewalks, bike lanes – everything.”

Marcus Street is a project that is several years down the road, and Stranger said there is another project in mind for downtown Hamilton.

“The downtown plan is some kind of a gateway to draw people’s attention as they drive along the highway to go down Main Street. That hasn’t been designed, but we will keep it in mind to build more pedestrian non-motorized handicapped aspects into it.”

West said she was pleased that so many people came to participate in the audit.

“It is a start to build public awareness,” said West. “Next time we hope a county commissioner and someone from the school could come – we have a goal of connecting downtown to schools.”

She envisions more improvements for the community.

“Fifty-eight percent of Ravalli County is obese. I want to tell them just get out and go for a walk. Oh, we don’t have sidewalks. Well, we are working to solve that. We still have work to do and policies to put in place. This is just the beginning of the discussion.”

The Building Active Communities Initiative is funded in part by Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

For more information on the audit, contact jennywest30@yahoo.com.

Reach reporter Michelle McConnaha at 363-3300 or michelle.mcconnaha@ravallirepublic.com.