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LEXINGTON

Walk-to-school push fueled by traffic tie-ups

Fed up with traffic and hoping to promote walking, Lexington school officials and parents this fall will encourage students to walk or bicycle to school as part of an offshoot of a larger town initiative to improve the town's sidewalk system.

A pilot of the program, known as Safe Routes to Schools, is scheduled to begin in September at Bridge Elementary School. School officials are hoping to expand it to other schools in town later in the school year.

Organizers of the program plan to identify safe routes for pedestrians and encourage parents to lead ''walking buses," or groups of students walking together accompanied by an adult, said Olga Guttag, a School Committee member and member of the town's Sidewalk Committee.

Guttag said establishing Safe Routes to School, modeled after a program that began in Great Britain in 1995, could promote exercise, help fight childhood obesity, build community spirit, and reduce long lines of cars at schools.

''The fewer cars we get at drop-off and pickup, the happier everybody is, and the safer will be all the schoolchildren and faculty and parents," Guttag said.

Selectmen created the Sidewalk Committee last fall after hearing complaints about the lack of sidewalks from several residents.

It's a concern shared by Jeanne Krieger, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. She often walks from her home south of Route 2 along the sidewalks of Waltham Street into Lexington Center.

''But there are a number of arterial streets in Lexington that just don't have sidewalks. It's my belief that if there were more sidewalks, there would be more pedestrian traffic, which I think would be a good thing, because people would get more exercise, and I think it would alleviate traffic around the elementary schools," said Krieger, who identified Spring Street and parts of North Street and Burlington Street as ripe for sidewalks.

The Sidewalk Committee is completing a report on the town's sidewalks. John Davies, chairman of that group, said older neighborhoods in Lexington with relatively small lots tend to have sidewalks, while areas on the fringes of town with large house lots tend not to have as many.

Having a better sidewalk system can encourage a better sense of community in Lexington, Davies said.

''My observation has been that sidewalks sort of help to create a neighborhood feeling among people," Davies said. ''They make neighbors safely accessible to each other."

But building sidewalks is expensive. According to cost estimates obtained by the town's Public Works Department, a new concrete sidewalk 4 feet wide costs about $23 a linear foot, or more than $60,000 for a half-mile, and would last about 30 years. An asphalt sidewalk costs about $15 per linear foot and would last 15 years. No decisions have been made about the materials.

But residents studying the issue say that some areas of town can be made significantly safer for pedestrians by making relatively minor improvements, such as removing tree branches or other impediments to existing sidewalks. Guttag said some neighborhoods have sidewalks interrupted by small gaps.

''You can make an entire street very pedestrian-friendly just by filling in the missing 50 feet of sidewalks," Guttag said.

As in many towns, the Lexington Planning Board often requires that developers include sidewalks in new subdivisions. The town also acts on requests from existing neighborhoods for a new sidewalk and then assesses residents a betterment charge to put them in.

That hasn't happened recently, said Wayne Brooks, the manager of operations and highway superintendent for the Department of Public Works. Other than about a 600-foot stretch of Pleasant Street, the town has not built new sidewalks for at least five years, he said.

In all, Lexington has about 142 miles of roads and only about 60 miles of sidewalks, Brooks said. (If 1 mile of a street has sidewalks on both sides, that would count as 2 miles of sidewalks.)

Lack of sidewalks can make it hard to get to school on foot, said Craig Weeks, Sidewalk Committee chairman, who often walks his second-grader to Brooks Elementary School. The 15-minute route includes almost no sidewalks, and a bicycle path that goes only about one-quarter of the way, he said.

A survey of school parents this spring found that the lack of sidewalks led many to worry about their children's safety when either walking to school or waiting for a school bus.

''So safety's a prime element of the whole exercise," Weeks said.

Sidewalk Committee members say they hope to create a master plan prioritizing sidewalk construction and improvements to existing sidewalks and recommending ways to pay for the work, Weeks said.

Weeks said he hopes the committee will come up with preliminary recommendations for the Board of Selectmen this fall and then formal recommendations in the fall of 2006, in time for annual Town Meeting in 2007.

For more information, go to the town's website, ci.lexington.ma.us, and click on ''Sidewalk Committee," or send an e-mail message to lexsidewalkcommittee@hotmail.com.

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