Residents recount need for improved public transportation serving East Hadley Road neighborhood in Amherst



Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2015

AMHERST — As visually impaired people who don’t drive, Shawn and Saphon Prak depend on public transportation, smooth and continuos sidewalks and easy access to the Norwottuck Rail Trail.

Like others who have lived in the East Hadley Road neighborhood, which features three large apartment complexes — Mill Valley Estates, Southpoint Apartments and The Boulders — and numerous small, single-family homes, the Praks have faced many challenges in getting to the nearby stores in Hadley to buy groceries and low-cost prescription drugs.

“For the most part, bus transportation is fine,” said Shawn Prak. “It comes to The Boulders, picks people up, and then brings them to town.”

Residents who want to ride a PVTA bus to Hadley, though, must take a circuitous route through Amherst center and board a second bus that goes to the malls.

The Praks and their five children recently moved from Mill Valley Estates to Olympia Oaks, near the University of Massachusetts, but continue to face transportation issues

“Right now, it’s OK, because the buses run every 15 minutes,” Saphon Prak said. “When students are on vacation or summer break, they take it away.”

And on Saturdays, getting to Stop & Shop is not easy, as the bus they need to board does not run until 5 p.m.

East Hadley Road residents who want to walk or ride a bike are faced with the choice of using busy roads with no sidewalks, or cutting across private land to get to the Norwottuck Rail Trail, a path through a cornfield that Shawn Prak said can be a “hair-raising” experience at times, with critters, brambles and a steep incline. If he didn’t have his service dog accompanying him, he might not use it, he said.

“It’s not easy, but it’s doable,” he said.

Town officials are using this sort of first-hand information, as well as a recently completed survey called “Getting Around Amherst,” to have a better understanding of the health equity issue that affects many low-income residents and immigrants who live in the neighborhood. It also provides momentum for efforts to improve public transportation, town infrastructure and connections to the bike path.

Health Director Julie Federman said town officials have long known about the cornfield path.

“That’s been a concern of mine for years,” Federman said.

Gauging the need

The Health Department commissioned the regional Healthy Hampshire program of the Collaborative for Educational Services to get data that highlights the needs for the 2,000 or so residents living in about 780 units and focuses on ways of easing their access to food and fitness and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

Sarah Bankert, coordinator of the Healthy Hampshire program, said the idea is to provide people who live in the East Hadley Road neighborhood with opportunities that many other Amherst residents already enjoy.

“We want to really figure out how to have this neighborhood experience the same level of abundance as others in Amherst,” Bankert said.

Healthy Hampshire, which includes Amherst, Northampton, Belchertown and Williamsburg, aims to make systemwide changes in the communities. It is funded through a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Public Health Mass in Motion program.

“We work with these communities to try to shift policies toward an active lifestyle and healthy eating,” Bankert said. “Our role is to engage in and inform around what makes a healthy community.”

The study began with focus groups held at Mill Valley Estates, the apartment complex where the Praks lived, and at the Center for New Americans at the Bangs Community Center. Then, with an intern from Amherst College, teenagers living in the apartment complexes last summer collected 166 responses to surveys asking their neighbors where they got their food, where they exercised and how often they used the town’s swimming pools and the Amherst Survival Center.

These surveys confirmed the challenges that Federman long has suspected existed. The results showed that people without personal vehicles often walk or bike along East Hadley Road, heading toward Hadley, or cut through the cornfield to get to the Norwottuck Rail Trail and then stores such as Maple Farms Market, Target and Wal-Mart,

“What we were looking for is what kinds of transportation do people use to get to the food stores,” Federman said.

More than half the residents surveyed indicated they ride the bus daily, and more than four in 10 use the bus to get to a grocery store.

Federman said she has talked to PVTA officials about a circulator bus that would give residents a more direct route from their homes to the Hadley commercial corridor. “I’m hoping data like this could impact the decision to put on a circulator bus,” Federman said.

Bankert said the Know Your Neighbor community group also has urged the PVTA to improve bus service, especially during the summer when college students are not in town and routes are reduced.

Path to rail trail

The unofficial path that involves cutting through the corn field on private land has been familiar to Shawn Prak since he was a teenager. But he acknowledges it can be challenging terrain, and recent improvements on the rail trail, such as the installation of a split-rail fence, force people using the path to crawl through the fence.

According to the surveys, about 60 percent of the East Hadley Road neighborhood use the rail trail, and of those seven in 10 access it through the informal path. More would use the path if it were paved and made safer.

This shortcut, which cuts off about four-tenths of a mile to and from the malls and keeps them off the main road, could be converted into a part of the rail trail, although Bankert said the land-use issues are complicated, in part because it is private land and is situated in both Amherst and Hadley.

Still, Federman said formalizing this connection to the rail trail might be possible. “It seems that would be a really good spot for a connector to the bike path, or a spur,” Federman said.

She is beginning to talk to Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek about whether this is feasible and steps that would need to be taken. The issue is also being addressed with the Norwottuck Rail Trail Advisory Group.

The Healthy Hampshire survey results could also lead to other improvements, such as adding a sidewalk along East Hadley Road toward South Pleasant Street that might encourage more people to walk and use the nearby Groff Park, which includes fields, a play area and a wading pool. Bankert said residents appreciate having sidewalks and safe road crossings.

The Amherst Survival Center may also consider direct outreach to the low-income populations, bringing fresh food to the people from its North Amherst site. More than 90 percent of those surveyed said they would utilize this service.

“Getting Around Amherst” included a photo documentation component completed by the teenagers who participated. Federman said this helps the teens, who took many of the pictures, to better depict the environment in which they live and detail their own experiences. Photos show an unused tennis court and broken basketball hoop at Southpoint Apartments, a fitness gym at The Boulders, unmarked street crossings near the high school and a rack of potato chips at a downtown convenience store.

Federman said she hopes the project will continue this summer with a focus on a different area, likely for residents living on College, North East and South East streets, including the Colonial Village and Watson Farms apartments.

Bankert said the survey results confirm what Cooley Dickinson Hospital found in a community health assessment, which showed that accessing health care in the area is made for difficult for those who don’t have adequate transportation.

Besides the work being done in Amherst, Bankert said she is assisting Belchertown officials in creating a vision for better pedestrian accessibility from the area of its Town Common to the Eastern Hampshire District Courthouse.

The four participating communities have also done other work to help underserved populations, including establishing or expanding the Safe Routes to School program, creating a Healthy Neighborhood Market Committee to help store owners offer healthy food and drink options, and initiating a plan to improve school nutrition through support of new state regulations.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


 


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