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Downtown Gainesville may be more walkable than you think
Residents, officials see improvements, but issues still exist outside city's core
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Ramon Lipscomb walks home after working in downtown Gainesville on Wednesday afternoon. Many residents feel more connected to the community while walking, but many areas of Hall County are difficult for pedestrians to navigate. - photo by David Barnes

Todd Norris often walks to work, about an hour and 15 minutes each way. He works at Milliken & Co. and said he also often walks to Longwood Park or to go shopping.

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Todd Norris walks to work along the Midtown Greenway in Gainesville on Wednesday afternoon. Norris' trip to work lasts an hour and 15 minutes each way. Many residents feel more connected to the community while walking, but many areas of Hall County are difficult for pedestrians to navigate. - photo by David Barnes
He was taking the Midtown Greenway, one of his frequent routes, on Wednesday afternoon and said he has gotten in the habit of walking over the past three months.

“If I don’t do it every day, I feel bad and I need to go walk,” Norris said.

Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of Gainesville’s Community Service Center, knows firsthand the benefits of walking.

She walks several times a week between meetings at her two offices on Prior Street and Main Street. She said walking has helped her get to know her community even better.

“I can now relate to people by name, and that just creates a better sense of intimacy and a greater sense of community,” Moss said. “I think people will have a sense of ownership of their community when they walk the streets.”

However, Moss also knows the dangers of walking in areas that are less pedestrian-friendly, and she sees improvements that could be made.

Major roads like Jesse Jewell, E.E. Butler and Queen City Parkways, as well as Browns Bridge Road, are more pedestrian-friendly even if they are often busier, she said.

“The major arteries are pretty easy to navigate, but it’s mainly the side roads that lack sidewalks or the topography is very hilly. ... There is some work to be done, but the city is clearly committed to making walkability easier,” Moss said.

A lack of sidewalks or sidewalks that are not handicap-accessible can make it more difficult for pedestrians to get around, Moss said.

Chris Rotalsky, Gainesville’s director of public works, said the city, like most other communities, has evolved over the years as more people chose to drive rather than walk. Gainesville is trying to shift its focus, however, and sidewalks are now a major consideration in the design process and are required by code for larger developments, Rotalsky said.

“We see (a demand for sidewalks) from our citizens,” Rotalsky said. “They want sidewalks, whether they want to get some exercise or they need to use it to get to grocery stores, schools — whatever their circumstance is.”

Rotalsky said the city also notices where people make their own paths in the grass where sidewalks are not available. Those areas then become a focus; Shallowford Drive, for example, is a priority for the city if the budget passes at the June 19 city council meeting.

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A crosswalk signaling pedestrians to walk across Academy Street NW on Thursday morning. Many residents feel more connected to the community while walking, but many areas of Hall County are difficult for pedestrians to navigate. - photo by David Barnes
Angela Middleton, a retired teacher and community volunteer, also walks frequently. Her favorite walking spots are in the Harrison Square area and downtown Gainesville near Green Street. She said she feels safe walking downtown, but she has to drive a few miles from her home on Gaines Mill Road to get to a more walkable area.

“Once we get out beyond the Gainesville city limits, especially on what we consider the south side, heading out to the (U.S.) 129 area, it becomes very difficult to walk,” Middleton said. “I personally am concerned about the foot traffic on the south side. ... A lot of young people walk that route.”

Middleton said subdivisions often have their own sidewalks, which can make it easier for residents to walk within their neighborhoods, but adding sidewalks between subdivisions can increase walkability.

Tim Knight of Knight Commercial Real Estate is the developer of Parkside on the Square, a commercial and residential development coming to downtown Gainesville. He said downtown Gainesville’s walkability makes it a desirable place to live because of its easy access to shopping, restaurants, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, entertainment and churches.

“You’re not sitting in traffic, you don’t have to spend money on your car, and you’re getting a health benefit while you’re walking,” Knight said.

He and his development partners looked at Walk Score, a website that uses an algorithm to determine an area’s walkability based on its proximity and walking routes to nearby amenities. The site grades addresses on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most walkable.

The Gainesville Square earns an 80, which Knight said makes downtown comparable to areas in larger cities like Atlanta. Other areas of the county, however, don’t rank as high; the address for the Hall County Government Center on Browns Bridge Road, for example, only has a 31 Walk Score.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization’s sidewalk inventory report shows there are about 375 miles of sidewalks in the organization’s region, which includes Hall County and part of western Jackson County. The organization’s Complete Street Policy encourages consideration of all road users, including bicyclists and walkers, throughout the design and planning process for the area’s roadways.

Katie Strickland, district spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said GDOT looks at what is nearby when designing road projects, and if an area is expected to have a lot of pedestrian traffic, it will put a sidewalk in. For example, a current project at State Routes 183 and 52 in Dawson County is near Amicalola Falls State Park, so a sidewalk is being added there for people who may be walking to and from the park, she said.

Strickland said GDOT ensures compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act when building crosswalks and sidewalks, and improvements are designed with safety in mind.

“They separate the roadway for people on foot,” she said.

Ramon Lipscomb often walks from his job at a restaurant downtown to his home near Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The trip usually only takes about five minutes for him, and he said he doesn’t mind walking to stay healthy.

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Todd Norris carries water while walking along Pine Street on his way to work in Gainesville on Wednesday afternoon. Norris' trip to work lasts an hour and 15 minutes each way. Many residents feel more connected to the community while walking, but many areas of Hall County are difficult for pedestrians to navigate. - photo by David Barnes
Lipscomb said he is grateful he can stay on the sidewalk for his whole walk home.

“That’s the important thing to do, is to walk on the sidewalks. You really don’t want to get hit by anybody,” he said.

The Highlands to Islands Trail system runs through Hall County and will eventually connect various trails in the area to make schools, shopping and other locations more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists.

“It gives people a place to walk and enjoy the natural scenery in that area,” said Ken Rearden, Hall County’s director of public works and utilities.

The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization is currently working on a trail study that is expected to be completed in August or September, according to an email from Sam Baker, the transportation planning manager for the organization.

Staff photographer David Barnes contributed to this report.

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