Thetford awarded $5,250 VTrans grant for cyclist safety

Sharrows and signage and woonerfs, oh my!

Thetford awarded $5,250 VTrans grant for cyclist safety

The Town of Thetford has received a $5,250 award from VTrans' Small-scale Bicycle/Pedestrian Grant Program for a project that would add shared lane markings, also known as sharrows, and signage along Academy Road, parts of Route 132, and Tucker Hill Road, with an emphasis around both covered bridges.

The project started when Geoff Martin, Thetford's Regional Energy Coordinator, and Nick Clark, then-Chair of the Thetford Selectboard (and still a current member), reached out to the City of Lebanon, NH to inquire about their experience with sharrows and how they might impact emissions. Rebecca Owens, Associate Planner for Lebanon, responded to them in late October, 2020 over email:

The opportunity to increase sharrows [in Lebanon] came along with the entire roadway marking refresh for this year, so not directly to impact emissions. That said, our Master Plan Ch. 13 “Energy” specifically notes facilitation of alternative transportation to reduce emissions so that is part of our intent. Safety is another in that cyclists are safer when they ride in the center of the lane than close to the curb...

... seeing travel corridors as being for all modes, not just cars, is the crux. Roads were more like woonerfs originally (look at any old photo full of people walking, in carts, with horses, and biking, with cars slowly making their way through them) and Vital Communities has a host of articles related to that. Curbs and jaywalking etc. are all devices of the auto industry. What I am getting at is that sharrows are part of the discussion of what roads are meant for and where funding for roads go (just cars or all modes)…. slowing down traffic to reduce fatalities (speed increases fatalities) and encourage more bike-friendly communities and “roads for all users” supports climate action.

What exactly is a woonerf? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as "a road that is designed with special features to reduce the amount of traffic using it, or to make traffic go slower." The concept arose out of the Netherlands in the 1960s, and for the Dutch, a woonerf is simply a "living street," where pedestrians, cyclists and motorists are given equal consideration (although admittedly, "the pedestrian is a bit more equal than the others," according to its founder Dirk Grotenhuis).

While it's unlikely that the aim is for Academy Road, Route 132 and Tucker Hill Road to become pedestrian walkways, slowing down traffic on these roads could have a positive impact for both residents and cyclists alike, and potentially for the climate as well. Martin and Clark asked Owens if she knew of a specific metric for measuring the contribution that sharrows could make in reducing emissions, but she wasn't certain if such a metric existed.

That said, there are metrics around how vehicle speed affects emissions so you could extrapolate that the traffic calming effect of on-road bike facilities (shoulders/lanes) and markings (sharrows) helps to dampen emissions.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials provides a lengthy list of benefits that adding shared lane markers can have, among which are heightening the awareness of both bicyclists and motorists as they travel simultaneously along a roadway. The application for the grant which was awarded to Thetford, entitled Thetford Hill and Thetford Center Cyclist Safety Corridors, went more into the specific ways in which sharrows might benefit certain areas of our town:

Academy and Tucker Hill Roads serve as the main connectors to Route 132 and Route 113 in Thetford, and bring cyclists to the denser areas of town along Route 113. Route 132 is the main artery for access to/from Strafford/Norwich, and cyclists can be found using the full travel lane on Route 132. This section of Rt. 132 is marked as a bike route on the Vermont State Bike Map, issued by the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. The entire area (Route 132, Tucker Hill Road, and Academy Road) is utilized heavily by bicyclists, and is also notable because there is an e-bike business on Academy Road on Thetford Hill. This business rents e-bikes and offers tours to its customers. The roads, however, are not currently marked to alert drivers to the potential for bike traffic.

The popularity of e-bikes and the Thetford e-bike rental business, Vermont Bike & Brew on Academy Road, have increased the numbers of the cycling public, especially those with little experience of cycling hazards. In addition, both Academy Road and Tucker Hill Road pass through covered bridges in residential neighborhoods. Both of these bridges, the Union Village bridge and the Thetford Center bridge, are single-lane, dark and narrow. Finally, residents who walk across the covered bridges to reach Town facilities complain that 1) vehicles go through at high speed; 2) vehicles travel too fast on the residential portion of those roads.

So what will this mean for drivers?

It's important to note that a sharrows are not the same thing as bike lanes, which are designated sections of the roadway reserved for bicyclists only. Sharrows also do not prohibit motorists from passing cyclists on the road, but they should encourage them to give ample space to cyclists as they do (so as to not run them off the road).

Owens, after hearing of the newly awarded grant money, sent her congratulations to Clark, adding, "I'll have to get my bike up that way and I'm sure more folks will be encouraged to. It would be great to see (VT) bike advocates promoting this as a model/case too as it's no joke to get even small accommodations in rural areas."

It will still take some time for these changes to occur. Town Manager Bryan Gazda informed Clark that he and the Road Foreman, Dale Lewis, "are going to go over the grant in the next few weeks to see how it will be implemented."

Meanwhile, motorists beware: the cyclists are out in droves, as are many walkers and joggers eager to enjoy the fresh air and warming temperatures. Thetford might not have a full-fledged woonerf in the works, but we have long attracted a wide array of outdoor enthusiasts to our winding roads, and it doesn't look like that's going to let up any time soon.

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