By Mary Therese Biebel, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — If your neighborhood has sidewalks, Larry Newman said last week, research indicates you are 47 percent more likely to get the exercise experts recommend to keep you healthy.
That’s because you’re more likely to walk at least half an hour per day when you have your own space, away from motor vehicles. Preferably with a buffer of street trees, pleasant scenery, and interesting destinations.
“Downtown Wilkes-Barre is a walker’s paradise,” Newman said as he led a group of pedestrians on a journey that started at the YMCA. “Traditional cities like Wilkes-Barre have mixed uses, with houses and churches and YMCAs and office buildings all together, cheek by jowl.”
Part of the YMCA’s popular “Y Walk Wednesday” series, the walk Newman led attracted about 30 participants who enjoy listening to experts describe what they see on their weekly strolls — from the architecture of mansions along Franklin Street to the Susquehanna River’s riparian forest to the flood protection provided by the levee system.
Newman’s topic of the day was walkability which — no surprise — seemed to be a subject close to the Y Walkers’ hearts.
“We moved here from Long Island to get away from that suburban feel. You had to drive everywhere,” said Cheryl Shapiro, of Wilkes-Barre. “We love walking in the city and (if you want a more forested atmosphere) Moon Lake Park is only 10 minutes away. It’s the best of both worlds.”
When suburbs proliferated after World War II, Newman said, they were built to accommodate vehicles rather than pedestrians and they tended to follow zoning laws that kept them purely residential.
“It was good to get the rendering plants and steel mills and junkyards away from where people live,” he said. But when zoning laws also led to having no grocery stores or libraries or doctor’s offices near people’s homes, that practically ensured people would have to drive for errand after errand.
Pointing to a website called walkscore.com, Newman said anyone can enter an address and see a score for their neighborhood, with 100 being the highest score and indicating the most walkable kind of place.
Downtown Wilkes-Barre has a score of 92, he said, and people who live here are more likely than most county residents to walk to work, or to a store, restaurant or entertainment venue.
At Movies 14 on East Northampton Street in the city, Newman said, 30 percent of the visitors arrive on foot.
“Nobody is walking to Cinemark,” he said, naming the suburban-style movie complex with its huge parking lot, located just outside of Scranton.
His audience chuckled at that. They have no desire to walk along a highway to reach a theater — though they do enjoy walking.
“I was bushwhacking (in the woods) for 10 miles earlier today,” walker Sue Ekhart, of Kingston, said.
“I wouldn’t think of driving to Kirby Park from here,” Dave Gowinski said, indicating he’d much rather walk across the bridge from downtown Wilkes-Barre’s River Common.
Speaking of the River Common as well as the entire Riverfront Parks area and Kirby Park, Newman happily pointed out they are much more accessible now to pedestrians coming from the east side of Wilkes-Barre’s River Street.
“You used to take your life in your hands trying to cross the street,” he said. But traffic calming strategies such as narrowing the lanes of the roadway and installing medians have made the situation safer for people who walk.
The more slowly cars are moving, the better for people on foot, he said.
“If a car hits a pedestrian at 20 miles per hour, nine out of 10 pedestrians survive,” he said. “If a car hits a pedestrian at 30 miles per hour, five out of 10 pedestrians survive. If a car hits a pedestrian at 40 miles per hour, only one out of 10 pedestrians survives.”
As the group walked along West South Street, Newman pointed out that some trees had to be removed. They were victims of a destructive insect, the emerald ash borer.
“The good news is, trees grow,” he said, explaining new trees will soon be planted, with “sleeves” around the root ball to encourage the roots to grow downward and not spread outward where they can lift sidewalks and contribute to a tripping hazard. “Thirty-five or 40 years ago (when older trees were planted) they didn’t have that,” he said.
If he had one wish for the streets, Newman said, he’d like to see one-way streets such as Franklin, Washington, and parts of Union and Northampton, become two-way. Studies have shown motorists drive more slowly and carefully on two-way streets, he said.
For now, he’s glad Wilkes-Barre is as walkable as it is — and said all the people snapping up lofts and apartments in the upper floors of various downtown buildings likely agree. “We’ve added 100 new housing units in the downtown over the past five years,” he said.
“I loved living in downtown Wilkes-Barre,” said former downtown resident Christina Kinsman, who now lives in the Miners Mills section of the city.
Reminiscing about the convenience of residing close to her salon, Christina Hair Designs, not having to drive to go shopping, she admitted she may have occasionally given passersby a chuckle, as when she bought a light-weight but somewhat unwieldy bamboo hat tree.
“I carried it right across Public Square,” she remembered with a laugh.