It’s that time of year when we are about to make the transition from the freedom of summer days to the structure of a school schedule. September is such a beautiful month in Maine that it is often difficult to stay inside. The days are still warm and sunny but the evenings have a little crisp edge to them, sharpening up to the turn in the season. But, to everything there is a season and in fall, buses start rumbling down the streets and kids with backpacks are seen waiting on street corners.

For some kids, though, getting to school means riding a new bike with friends or parents, or walking with older kids in their neighborhood. This is the memory I have of getting to school and there is something very sweet and familiar about being able to travel to school on your own. It facilitates the independence necessary to make going back to school a fun experience that also feels familiar because you’re all heading there from your neighborhood together.

While not all kids are able to walk or bike to school because of things like distance or schedule, many schools encourage kids to give it a try. Take the regularly scheduled “Walk and Bike To School” days in the fall and spring where schools stage safe crosswalk areas complete with volunteer student crossing guards. In many communities, even students who ride the bus are let off a block or so away from school so that they can participate, too. This is a national program that has really gained momentum and has encouraged many towns to make it safe for students to get to school under their own power.

This is all great as long as there are safe ways for these students to travel to their schools. Many towns in the Midcoast are lucky enough to have walkable communities with safe sidewalks and plenty of crosswalks.

But, when you stop to think about the little tributary-like paths that these tiny feet are taking, all leading to a single spot but from the streets of very different neighborhoods, that’s a lot of infrastructure. In some cases, there is safety in numbers and where there aren’t great sidewalks, parents team up and create a whole crew that travels together. But, in other cases, there are established paths where students have walked or biked over the years that help keep them off the streets and out of the way of passing cars.

Although some of these cross private property and have become unofficial trail connections, others are located on unimproved but official public ways. These are roads that appear on old subdivision plans that were adopted years ago, but the streets themselves were never paved. In many cases, well-established footpaths have evolved over the decades on these strips of land through continual use by neighborhood residents – many of them children – frequently walking on them as short-cuts between streets.

However, there is concern that these unpaved public rights-of-way may not always be protected. Currently, Maine has given all towns and cities until Sept. 17 to decide whether to keep these so-called “paper streets,” transfer them to adjacent property owners, or to ask for a 20-year extension to make those decisions.
The solutions aren’t always simple, but there are good ways to compromise on mixed uses of these areas. In Yarmouth, for example, the town council has voted to retain a permanent easement for pedestrian and utility uses on most of its “paper streets.”

Other options available to Maine towns include allowing abutting property owners to use them for driveway access, limited landscaping, or minor storage, as long as that use does not interfere with continued public access on foot or bicycle, or with maintenance of things like storm water drains and sewers.

Towns can also maintain access to unofficial footpaths where they cross private land through guidelines on subdivision development. In Brunswick, for example, the planning board worked with the Parks and Recreation Department and the developer of the Meadowbrook neighborhood to officially establish informal pedestrian connections via several woodland trails. This ensured continued access to nearby conservation land for existing neighbors and future residents.

More recently, a subdivision at the western end of Boody Street was approved by Brunswick with a pedestrian right-of-way at the end of the proposed cul-de-sac to ensure continued footpath access to the town-owned Crimmins Field, where many kids play sports. Paths from here connect to Coffin Elementary School and Brunswick Junior High, as well as to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School via sidewalks on McKeen Street.

Having forward-thinking policies like these included in a town’s subdivision rules can give local planning boards greater authority to require pedestrian connections when new neighborhoods are being developed.

So, this fall, as you see students making their way to school, give some thought to the role of your town and neighborhood in helping to make it possible for them to get there safely. It’s a wonderful thing to allow students to walk and bike to school while the weather is still lovely and it helps create an important sense of community for the families attending our neighborhood schools.

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