Rural Walking

Rural Walking Tool-Kit

WalkBoston, sponsored by the state Department of Public Health, has been challenged to explore the possibility of improving walking conditions for residents of the state’s rural or semi-rural areas.  To view and download the full tool kit click here. “Rural” in Massachusetts means places with relatively low population densities - over half of the state’s municipalities, according to the U.S. Census. Many of these communities already have sidewalks in their town centers, with rugged recreational trails in their conservation areas. In most places, residents have to drive to a place where they can walk.

Interestingly, some communities have attempted to provide interconnected, town-wide networks of facilities that encourage residents to walk near their homes, whether to school, to work, to shop or to find places for exercise. Our case studies focused on pedestrian plans and facilities from 13 Massachusetts towns from Salisbury in the north, Lenox in the west, Dudley on the south and Barnstable on the Cape. In one of these towns, a pedestrian plan was being invented by local residents. In another two, roadside paths already formed enviable town-wide networks for walking to school or exercising. One town extended paths to its beach and another to a major tourist attraction. Providing sidewalks along all major roads was another’s goal, and implementing traffic calming techniques to reduce vehicle speeds was happening in two more towns. Linking recreational trails and roadside paths was a major goal of another town. This diversity of approaches was funded by local town allocations, developer agreements, public utility voluntary assistance and state agencies. Download full tool kit here.

A Long History of Walking in Massachusetts

For about two hundred years after Massachusetts was settled, residents relied on walking as their principal mode of transportation. Horses were expensive and not available to everyone. As a result, walking exerted a powerful influence on town form. For early settlers, the church was the focus of community life, with attendance required by the colony’s religious leaders. Since walking was the basic means to get to town activities, churches had to be located within walking distance of homes. The unwritten standard was that a three-mile walk was the maximum that anyone should be required to travel to church. As a result, many towns in Massachusetts are approximately six miles across, with the church at the town center and most of the town contained within a three-mile walking distance from the center in all directions.

Residents’ walking needs led communities to establish paths between residences and the town center, where the church and school were located, as well as to millers, smiths and retailers. These paths became major roads and streets, used not only for walking, but also for horseback trips and later for horsedrawn carriages. Ultimately, the paths became roads, which were widened to accommodate automobiles. With the rise of cars, walking to destinations as part of daily life became largely unnecessary. Eventually, people in rural communities began to feel the need for exercise and for access to open spaces. Parks and conservation areas were created, and walking was repositioned as a recreational activity - hiking, an irregular versus a daily activity. The decline in daily walking was especially apparent in low-density areas, where distances between destinations tend to be fairly substantial and walking cannot compete with the time saved by using a car. With a reduced need for everyday walking facilities, many municipalities avoided the expense of constructing sidewalks. The resulting lack of sidewalks further discouraged walking and contributed to the increased use of vehicles.