Ambling forward: Walkable community proposal accepted

Posted: Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Susana LaRock's 10-year-old daughter only needs to walk a tenth of a mile to get to the Cooper Landing school. But LaRock's daughter doesn't hoof it. Instead, her mom gives her a ride.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Wildlife watchers crowd the side of the Sterling Highway in Cooper Landing in 2008 to observe a bear in the Kenai River. Some Cooper Landing residents are advocating for a series of projects that they say will make the area safer and more enjoyable to pedestrians.

"I hate getting into a car just to go that far," LaRock says.

Later in the day, when LaRock wants to go for a short exercise walk, she says she doesn't stroll through town and gaze up at Cecil Rhodes Mountain -- not even on a sunny April afternoon. Instead, LaRock drives to the school gym and cranks out lap after mundane lap.

The Cooper Landing seniors have a similar routine. When they want to saunter off some calories, they drive about two miles out of town to find an acceptable pathway.

The residents refer to this nonsensical-sounding existence as "driving to walk," and it appears to be common in the tiny town. Given the winding stretch of the Sterling Highway that snakes through Cooper Landing, the speedy traffic that often tries to negotiate the tight turns and the inadequate paths for pedestrians and bikers, many Cooper Landing residents say walking in town is just too dangerous.

Fortunately for the multitude of people in Cooper Landing who want a solution, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted last week to add the 17-point Walkable Community Project proposal to the borough's comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan is a guide to community development, not a commitment. It is meant to be a flexible document.

The vote doesn't mean that any construction on the proposal will soon break ground. Nor does it mean that the borough will fund any piece of the project. By adding the proposal to the borough's comprehensive plan, the assembly simply gave the people of Cooper Landing their blessing.

The idea of a walkable community in Cooper Landing traces back to the 1970s when residents lobbied for trails and eventually earned the current wood-planked bridge that lines one side of the highway over Kenai Lake.

But an aging bridge doesn't satisfy many of the present inhabitants who say a foot-friendly town could bolster tourism, safety and easy commutes throughout the Kenai Peninsula.

Traffic safety expert Dan Burden, the executive director of Washington-based Walkable Communities, Inc., assessed Cooper Landing on two occasions and helped the community draft its pedestrian proposal. Burden said the top priority in Cooper Landing should be to reduce traffic speed traveling through the town.

"The car is no longer the king. It's a welcome intruder into the community as long it behaves," Burden, who has assessed more than 2,000 communities's walking needs, said. "At an appropriate lower speed, the motorist will pay attention to the people walking and bicycling, and they will start to respect the people rather than saying, 'Who are these people getting in my way?'"

Resident Deb Carlson has been a champion for Cooper Landing's walkable community plan and helped bring Burden in for an assessment. Carlson said changes to the town roads' shoulders and turn lanes are a must because walking has become perilous.

"Some people insist on trying (to walk), and it's crazy," Carlson said. "This is not an amenity. It's not a special luxury. It's about safety."

Carlson has spent summers taking pictures of tourists, who frequent the area for its access to the Kenai River and backcountry hiking opportunities, walking dangerously close to oncoming traffic.

Carlson and many others say turning Cooper Landing into a walker's haven would only help the tourism industry because it would afford non-anglers more opportunities like easy trailhead and camping access from town.

Volunteer Emergency Medical Technician Ed Holsten said without proper turning lanes, the town is a nightmare to try to navigate on a busy summer day.

"If we're running full lights and sirens most people know to stop, but they don't know where to stop, so they just park in the middle of the road," Holsten said.

Part of the walkable plan is meant to ease traffic congestion through the town.

The proposal includes building a multi-purpose trail throughout Cooper Landing, marking clearly defined turning lanes into local businesses, under-bridge trail crossing and adding some acceleration/deceleration lanes. It also includes "your speed" message signs, clearly marked pedestrian crosswalks and roundabouts.

With the proposal going into the comprehensive plan, the community may have an easier time securing funding for any future construction.

Borough Assemblywoman Sue McClure, of Seward, co-sponsored the borough ordinance that put the walkable community proposal into the comprehensive plan. McClure said she sees tremendous value in the idea.

"If they can get ways of getting people across the street, it's going to enhance the quality of life for residents and the visitors," McClure said.

LaRock knows a thing or two about how it would affect her life. She can recall times when babysitting several children at once, pushing strollers along the thin space between the edge of the traffic lane and the base of debris-spilling mountains.

"It feels wrong," LaRock says, "that we live in a small town but cant really walk anywhere."

Andrew Waite can be reached at

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