Federal program could bring new ideas to Lawrence’s walkability efforts

In this file photo from June 23, 2017, Staci Burch, of Lawrence, and Mark Patterson, of Overland Park, enjoy a walk along the Burcham Park Trail with Burch's dog Zara.

Making the city easier to navigate for pedestrians has been a long-standing goal in Lawrence, and this year will bring some new ideas to make it happen.

Douglas County is one of nine locations in the country selected to receive a federal walkability grant to participate in this year’s national Walkability Action Institute, according to a news release from the city. Local transportation planners say the program will help the city develop a community plan to improve walkability under the guidance of experts.

“Part of walkability is not just about what exists in your built environment but what types of policies or strategies do you have to get there,” said Senior Transportation Planner Jessica Mortinger.

Mortinger said that although the walkability plan could call for certain pedestrian infrastructure, improving walkability could also mean improving public transit access, adopting policies for street projects or developing public education campaigns.

Lawrence has been steadily adding residents — about 1,000 annually — and large apartment projects have increased density in certain areas, including in the city’s downtown. In November, Lawrence voters approved the renewal of a citywide sales tax to fund the public bus system for another 10 years. Such urban features have made the ability of people to get around without personal vehicles an increasingly prominent topic at City Hall in recent years.

Mortinger said the City Commission will have to approve accepting the grant and finalize details regarding the city’s participation at an upcoming meeting.

The group that will participate in the walkability planning program will be led by the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization. The group will be composed of representatives from the Lawrence City Commission, public works department, parks and recreation department, police department and the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

The federal grant provides about $6,800 toward the cost of participating in the program, which includes travel expenses so that the group can participate in an annual walkability conference this spring, according to Mortinger. She said some minimal expenses could come out of local budgets, as well.

Mortinger said participating in the walkability program would give the city guidance from experts as it develops the community walkability plan. She said the plan would call for specific strategies, policies or other changes that the city could implement.

“We are going to be in the room with other cities who are also trying to get to the same outcomes of improved walkability,” Mortinger said. “And then, we’re going to have a lot of national experts in the room.”

Examples from cities that participated in last year’s program include new street policies that require certain pedestrian infrastructure and the development of grant-assisted projects to add sidewalks, crossings, bus shelters or “way-finding” signs on key routes, according to summaries on the Walkability Action Institute’s website.

Douglas County was selected to participate in the program by the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2018 “Step It Up! Action Institute to Increase Walking and Walkability” conference will take place April 9-12.

Local health leaders said in the release that communities across the country were recognizing that being walk-friendly had important health, environmental and economic benefits. Chris Tilden, community health director at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said in the release that a lot of great things are already happening in the area to improve walkability.

“And I hope we can learn from other communities where walkability has not only promoted better health but has helped address issues like pollution, traffic congestion and economic development,” Tilden said.

Other locations selected to participate in the program are Albuquerque, N.M.; Allegheny County, Pa.; Anchorage, Alaska; Eau-Claire, Wis.; Hidalgo County, Texas; Las Vegas; Richmond, Va.; and Springfield, Mo.