One of Indiana Borough's great assets, in the opinion of Nick Karas, is the town's "walkability" -- the ease and convenience of traveling to downtown businesses, community schools, churches and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus simply by walking or riding a bicycle there.
More than a third of Indiana Borough residents already walk to work, and now a new subcommittee of the Indiana Borough Planning Commission is looking for ways to enhance walking and biking opportunities in the borough.
Karas, a planning commission member, is co-chairman of the subcommittee created last winter that will try to encourage more people to walk and bike more often. After all, he said, walking and biking are good for the pocketbook, good for the waistline and good for the environment.
On Saturday, members of the subcommittee met at Indiana's Memorial Park and went on a stroll along several downtown streets with Jason Kambitsis, a consultant with Aspect Data Driven Planning, of Pittsburgh.
Aspect's community planning and bicycle/pedestrian experts use geographic information systems and data collection to aid communities in creating plans with a focus on outcomes that can be implemented.
Kambitsis said Saturday's walking tour was an essential first step in the process, to look at and consider features that are conducive to walking and biking and those that are detrimental. It was also an opportunity to gather some basic data and get an up-close look at land-use practices.
"It's one thing for us to explain where bike paths and sidewalks and curb cuts should be, and another thing to empower the residents, educate them about what that means by seeing it on the street," Kambitsis said.
It's not enough for a town to just add bike racks and bike lanes, he said. There must be destinations, someplace for walkers and bikers to go. And the community must have the willingness to improve the connections, he said.
University towns generally are accommodating to bicyclists, according to Kambitsis, because so many students want to ride. Indiana, too, lends itself well to walking and bicycling because the topography of the borough is relatively level and the street system generally is laid out in regular grids.
During the walk, the Aspect team and subcommittee members took note of sidewalks that are especially narrow and some that are especially wide, traffic speed limits and unusual intersections.
"This one's a little odd, an odd configuration," Kambitsis said of the intersection where South Sixth Street, School Street and Wayne Avenue converge.
They also briefly discussed the planned improvements that will create a people-gathering space in the first block of North Seventh Street and how South Eighth Street is a logical connector between the downtown and the IUP campus for pedestrians and bicyclists.
They also paused to reflect at the plaque at Sixth and Philadelphia streets where teenage pedestrian Heather Dodson was fatally injured by a bus in 1991. The inscription on the plaque reads, "May the need for pedestrian safety never be forgotten."
Jeff Grim, chief planner in the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development and the other co-chairman of the subcommittee, said the Aspect team members will bring some preliminary findings and suggestions to the sub-committee's next meeting on Oct. 17.