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There are few things more basic to human life than walking.
We lost sight of this fact over recent decades, building new communities all over the world where moving on foot is dangerous or unappealing if not downright impossible. That’s beginning to change now as research shows the simple of act of walking offers surprising benefits for our health, our prosperity and the vitality of our communities.
Indeed, a movement is being launched across America to encourage more people to walk and to make our communities more walkable, and there are clear signs that more people are walking. “The wind is behind our sails,” says Kate Kraft, a public health expert working with two of the organizations helping lead the walking movement: the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and America Walks.
But Kraft goes on to note that, “It took 80 years to make America unwalkable, and it will take a lot of work to make it walkable again.”
A national survey of Americans’ attitudes to walking accentuates the challenge. A huge majority of people acknowledge that walking is good for them, but they also admit that they should walk more (79 percent) and that their children should walk more (73 percent). Only 11 percent say they meet the federal Centers for Disease Control’s recommended minimum for walking — half an hour a day five days a week.
Common reasons cited for not walking cited in the survey (sponsored by the Kaiser Permanente health care system) are:
- My neighborhood is not very walkable (40 percent)
- Few places within walking distance of my home (40 percent)
- Don’t have time (39 percent)
- Speeding traffic or lack of sidewalks (25 percent)
- Crime in my neighborhood (13 percent)
Solutions for a More Walkable America
While the challenges are very real, a flurry of new initiatives, ideas, programs and policies instill the walking movement with high hopes. Here are some of the promising new developments to get Americans back on their feet:
Vision Zero for Safe Streets: Some 4,500 Americans are killed crossing the street every year–a tragedy that very few people acknowledge. But there’s hope that will change now that New York City, San Francisco, Oregon and other places are implementing Vision Zero campaigns to reduce traffic deaths through street improvements, law enforcement and public education. Similar policies in Sweden cut pedestrian deaths in half over the past five years–and reduced overall traffic fatalities at the same rate. “Vision Zero is the next big thinking for walking,” says Alliance for Biking & Walking President Jeff Miller.
Federal Action Plan on Pedestrian Safety: New U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently announced an all-out effort to apply the department’s resources to boost bike and pedestrians safety the same as they do auto and airline safety. Secretary Foxx — former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina–notes that pedestrian deaths rose six percent since 2009. One thrust of his Action Plan on Bike and Pedestrian Safety will be design changes to streets that discourage speeding and other dangerous driving. “For years the message that bicyclists and pedestrians have been given is: You are responsible for your own safety. Walk at your own risk. Bike at your risk,” Foxx told a cheering crowd at the Pro-Walk Pro-Bike Pro-Place conference in Pittsburgh this fall. But it’s a new era now, he promised. “Bicycling and walking is as important as any other form of transportation.”
Safe Routes to Schools: Half of kids under 14 walked or biked to school in 1969. Now it’s less than 15 percent. Safe Routes to School campaigns work with families, schools and community officials to identify and eliminate barriers that block kids from getting to school under their own power. “We’re finding that the best interventions include both infrastructure improvements and programming. You put the sidewalks in but also get parents involved,” explains Margo Pedroso, deputy director of the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership. A five-year study of 800 schools in Texas, Florida, Oregon, and DC found a 43 percent rise in walking and biking by using this strategy.
Walking as a Basic Human Right: Walking has been shown to optimize our health and strengthen our communities, which means everyone should have equal opportunity to do it. But low-income people often find it difficult or dangerous to take a walk in their neighborhoods, which often lack sidewalks and other basic infrastructure. Studies show that pedestrians in poor neighborhoods are up to four times more likely to be injured in traffic accidents. Fear of crime is another factor that keeps people from walking. “Is everybody welcome to walk?” is a question we need to ask, said the NAACP’s Director of Health Programs Shavon Arline-Bradley at the Walking Summit last year.
Communities for People of All Ages: The mark of a great community is whether you’d feel calm about letting your 80-year-old grandmother or 8-year-old son walk to a nearby park or business district, says Gil Penalosa, former park director of Bogota, Colombia, explaining why he founded 8-80 Cities. Too many young and old people today live under virtual house arrest, unable to get anywhere on their own because driving is the only way to go. This has become a major theme for AARP, which partnered with Walkable and Livable Communities Institute (WALC) to create a series of 11 Livability Fact Sheets showing how to make your community safer and more comfortable for people of all ages. “Most of us are going to outlive our ability to drive by 10-12 years,” notes Kelly Morphy, executive director of WALC.
Complete Streets: It’s a quite simple idea: all streets should offer safe, convenient and comfortable travel for everyone — those on foot, on bike, on transit, in wheelchairs, young, old, or disabled. Twenty-seven states and 625 local communities across the U.S. have adopted Complete Streets policies in some form. There is no one uniform design. Bike lanes, sidewalks, traffic calming, special bus lanes, median islands, enhanced crosswalks, improved crossing signals, curb extensions, narrow auto lanes, roundabouts, and road diets are among the innovations that have been adopted many places.
Walk Audits: A deceptively simple idea, walk audits bring citizens and public officials together to assess the safety and convenience of walking in a particular locale. “They can really change how people look at a place,” says Dan Burden of Blue Zones who hit upon the idea in 1984 when a group of traffic engineers in Florida laughed at his question about how it would feel to cross the street at a harrowing intersection. “We’d never walk here,” they replied. But when they did, Burden remembers, “the street was immediately torn up and they started over.” This is a key tool to create what Burden calls community-driven planning, where the people living in a neighborhood have a big say in what happens there.
The Healing Properties of Nature and the Outdoors: Not all exercise offers the same health benefits. A growing body of research showing that outdoor physical activity, especially in nature, boosts our health, improves our concentration and may speed up our natural healing process. That means a walk in the park is not only more interesting than a work-out at the gym, it may be more healthy, too. The Wingspread Declaration — recently signed by 30 of America’s leading health officials, researchers and non-profit leaders — calls for business, government and the health care sector to step up efforts to reconnect people with nature.
Walking as a Medical Vital Sign: There’s an initiative afoot to encourage health care professionals to chart patients’ physical activity the same as they do weight, blood pressure, smoking and family health. Ascension Health (with 1,900 facilities in 23 states) Kaiser Permanente (648 facilities in nine states), Group Health (25 clinics in Washington state), Greenville Health System (seven facilities in South Carolina) are among the health providers already doing it.
Walk with a Doc: Walking has the lowest drop-out rate of any physical activity, which is why Ohio cardiologist David Sabgir started Walk With a Doc to sponsor events where people can talk to health care professional while out walking. Walk with a Doc now operates in 38 states.
Signs of the Times: Many people are so out of practice on walking, they don’t realize how convenient it is. That’s why architecture student Matt Tamasulo posted signs in Raleigh, North Carolina explaining that key destinations were just a few minutes away by foot. The city soon embraced his guerrilla campaign, and official walk wayfinding signs are now found around town. Tamasulo has since launched Walk [Your City] to help other communities show how easy it is to get around on your own two feet.
Walking Marathons and Half-Marathons: By nature, Americans are full of aspiration, always pushing themselves to do bigger things. Walking, for all its social and health benefits, can seem pedestrian to some people. That’s why certified fitness and walking coach Michele Stanten promotes the idea of walking marathons: to give walkers something big to aim and train for.
Walking is Fun: “Walking is still not seen to be as sexy as biking,” says Robert Ping, Program Manager for Walking and Livable Communities Institute. “We need to focus more on walking as recreation — the stroll through the neighborhood after dinner, going around the block, walking down to the park, meeting your neighbors. Something that’s not only utilitarian and good for the environment, but that’s fun!”
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. His website: JayWalljasper.com