For over twenty years Darien has been stagnant in addressing issues of pedestrian access and safety throughout town. The results of this inaction affect us in many ways. Children are bussed to schools in their neighborhoods, and must be driven to play with friends living only a few blocks away. Commuters (both residents and local workers alike) brave traffic in the streets to reach their trains and homes or workplaces daily. Residents who’d like to walk or jog for exercise, stroll to town to shop, or go to the park for recreation often can’t without a car (even when those destinations are mere blocks away).
Up until October 2010, there was not even a map to show us where our existing sidewalks are. Once tallied and displayed graphically, it became clear that of the walks we have, not one is available from Hanson Road north; an entire half of our town is not even partially pedestrian accessible, including a train station and elementary school. Many Darien High students living within a mile of the school are asked to walk rather than being bussed, yet few of their routes have an end-to-end sidewalk (and fewer still provide adequate crosswalks and signage at every intersection to ensure the safest walk possible).
Today we are still without a Pedestrian Safety Development Plan to detail the areas that should have walks, bike paths, crosswalks and signage (the Planning and Zoning Department confirms this). The only funds budgeted routinely have been for replacement sidewalks; the Department of Public Works maintains what we currently have. Resident requests for new sidewalks come into the police and Town Hall, yet the procedures for considering and evaluating these are still not transparent. To date only the Board of Selectmen choose which, if any, projects to pursue and fund based on those presented to them.
Primarily through the urging of concerned citizens along upper Hoyt Street, the town has made progress as of September 2012. Darien’s selectmen have now approved a sidewalk policy to be used in evaluating new projects, and they’re currently in the process of considering seven proposals chosen by the first selectman to see which they’d like to pursue first for future construction.
The Department of Public Works presented a ranking chart to the Selectmen on Jan. 14, which is a solid (if not perfect) first attempt to incorporate the evaluation criteria outlined in the new Sidewalk Policy and apply them against the seven selected projects. These are welcome developments in Darien, and I commend our leadership for taking these first steps toward addressing pedestrian safety issues. There are, however, three areas of concern amidst this process that I am hopeful will be further addressed:
First, it is imperative that safety factors take top priority when evaluating the need for new sidewalks. In the initial ranking chart it is clear that the weighting system, while trying to be comprehensive, has some significant flaws. As it exists, construction concerns can outweigh both Safety and Connectivity issues. It is possible to provide more specific factual safety data from traffic and accident reports, ensuring less subjective rankings.
Second, I believe we need to have a plan in place for alleviating any serious safety issues with temporary measures. The proposed Hoyt Street to Talmadge Hill project has been in limbo for the past 3.5 years, yet our interim efforts to request better designed signage, lighting, and the addition of crosswalks have stagnated, and nothing yet has changed. Thankfully the Board of Selectmen recently voted to fund temporary signs for this area (at its Feb. 14 meeting). However, sidewalk requests have been made for at least forty other roads in town (submitted to the BOS and DPW in January 2011), and most of those have not yet been considered or addressed in terms of what could be done now to make those areas safer.
Finally, I believe we need a group designated to help coordinate the efforts of our police, DPW and P&Z to design a comprehensive pedestrian safety plan. The idea of a Sidewalk Advisory Committee was noted in the Sept. 12, 2012 Board of Selectmen meeting minutes to be imminent, and it is included in the new sidewalk policy. Our first selectman recently noted however that this group will not be formed. We have a brand new advisory committee for those passionate about recycling and the town dump; I’m hoping that the First Selectman will reconsider and let those who are equally passionate about pedestrian safety also serve.
Darien has been negligent in addressing these issues for too long. Bundling the most severe safety zones into one package of sidewalk projects and engineering and bidding them out now (even if they must be financed) would make economic sense. We were told this was the perfect climate in which to invest in the senior center, police station and beach projects (due to low construction costs), so why not also invest in pedestrian safety? We should be doing everything we can to ensure that something comprehensive is done town-wide before someone is severely injured. Our quality of life can surely improve if we are willing to finally provide the attention and resources this issue deserves.
The writer is a member of Representative Town Meeting’s District 3 and has been an active proponent for Hoyt Street sidewalks near the Talmadge Hill train station.