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  • Jon Kaplan

An Eye-Opening Stroll Through a New England Village

Transportation expert Jon Kaplan had an unexpected hour to kill in Lebanon, New Hampshire, so he made a quick case study. Result: a timely lesson in how we can make our towns friendlier to walkers, bicycles, and baby carriages.

By Jon Kaplan

I’d like to be able to turn off the part of me that sees things through an engineer’s eyes, but I can’t. For most of the past 30 years, I have worked on making the transportation system work better for people walking and bicycling. My experience has shown me how car-centric most of our roads and streets are.

A few weeks ago, I had to drop off our car at a U-Haul store in Lebanon, New Hampshire, to have a hitch installed. They told me it was going to be at least an hour, so I had time to walk around and notice things. Lebanon has a nice village green surrounded by historic buildings, restaurants, a beautiful library, the City Hall, and post office. The first thing I noticed was a section of sidewalk closed off because the pathways within the green were being repaved. A hastily placed orange barrel and some flimsy yellow tape cordoned off the closed area with a “Sidewalk Closed, Detour” sign. This was more than I have seen some contractors put in place, but far from adequate. The “detour” was nothing more than the arrow on the sign. There was no temporary ramp to use if I had been a wheelchair user. No temporary crosswalk. No other signs. Essentially, pedestrians were dumped out into the street to fend for themselves. Or, if using a wheelchair or some other mobility device, they would be forced to backtrack hundreds of feet to the nearest crosswalk.

I did notice some positive uses of road space. One entire block next to the popular Italian restaurant Three Tomatoes had been completely blocked off to traffic and a large tent erected to create additional, socially distanced seating. Temporary planters marked both ends of the street and created suitable barriers. Another temporary seating area had been created from what had formerly been on-street parking along a block anchored by Salt Hill Pub on the corner. Again, a large tent with tables and chairs had been erected. I couldn’t help wondering whether some form of these temporary facilities would remain as we emerge from the pandemic.