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What America's Most Walkable Suburb Can Teach Towns Everywhere

Walking tour

Walking tours offer residents and visitors the opportunity to explore the city at a slower pace, and lively walkable suburbs are beneficial for communities' continuing prosperity.

Suburban life has always been synonymous with long hours in the car — going to work, school, the grocery store, the mall, soccer practice and friends’ homes. Some people even drive to take a walk.

That’s changing now, just like the stereotype of suburbs as places where everyone’s white, married with children and plays golf at the country club. From Bethesda, Maryland to Edina, Minnesota to Kirkland, Washington, citizens are reinventing their towns to better accommodate walkers. Traffic is being tamed on busy streets. New sidewalks and trails are being constructed. Business districts are coming to life thanks to growing foot traffic.

Leading the charge are suburban leaders who see their communities’ continuing prosperity and quality-of-life dependent on creating lively walkable places that attract young people, families and businesses wanting to locate where the action is. Walking is gaining popularity across the US for both transportation and recreation because it improves health, fosters community and saves money.

The best place to experience the future of suburban living is Arlington County, Virginia, right across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.  Built up during the 1950s, ‘40s and late ‘30s, after autos already dominated American life, it’s a classic suburb full of freestanding homes with driveways and green lawns. Nonetheless it’s been named one of the 14 best “Walk Friendly” communities in America by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina and one of the 25 Best Cities for Walking by Prevention magazine.

A Day in the Life of America’s Most Walkable Suburb

In Arlington’s Courthouse/Clarendon district, even on an unseasonably frigid Friday evening, you’ll find folks walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, toting home groceries, out strolling or heading to health clubs, shops, restaurants and movie theaters.

The next morning is windy with snow flurries, but the wide sidewalks of Arlington’s Virginia Square/Ballston district hums with people running errands at the bank, the cleaners, the mall, the tailors, the print shop, the pharmacy, the hair salon and the phone store. A lot of shoppers popped over from nearby apartment buildings and townhomes that have grown up recently what once was a struggling commercial strip, while others strolled from nearby single family homes.

Clarendon/Courthouse and Ballston/Virginia Square are both served by a regional train system, a boost for walkable communities that most American suburbs won’t have access to anytime soon. But pedestrians flourish in Arlington neighborhoods distant from train lines too.

The Westover neighborhood sports a typically Mid-Century design with parking lots in front of many businesses but still offers friendly streetlife. A trio of middle schoolers walk home from the grocery with lunch fixings, while neighbors stop for a chat on their way to the hardware store, library, pharmacy, barbershop, bus stop, the Lost Dog Café or the Stray Cat café.

Meanwhile the brand new Shirlington community, rising out of the ashes of a failed shopping center, feels like a suburban village. A Main Street built in what was a parking lot invites you to take an afternoon stroll browsing a wide selection of shops, ethnic restaurants, a library, a full-service grocery and Bus Boys & Poets, a popular bookstore. A few steps away are movie theaters, service businesses like hair salons and yoga studios, office buildings, townhomes, apartments, a bus station and parking garages.

These neighborhoods stretch over six miles in the heart of Arlington (which is both a city and a county at the same time), but you can reach them all on foot via pedestrian-friendly city streets or Arlington’s 50-mile trail network.

Arlington’s Path to Transformation

Arlington did not become a pedestrian success story overnight. The sidewalks are lively today thanks to a series of smart decisions carried out over several decades. The story of this community’s rise to become America’s most walkable suburb offers lessons for towns everywhere wanting to thrive in the years to come.

As an early model for the auto-oriented development that popped up all over the country after World War II, Arlington also become one of the first suburbs to experience the inevitable side effects of aging. The county population dropped from 174,000 in 1970 to 152,500 in 1980 as new land to develop became scarce and kids who grew up there moved away.

“In the 1970s this was a declining inner ring suburb,” notes Chris Zimmerman, who served on the county board for 18 years. “I moved here in 1979 because of the cheap rent. Arlington was a stopover for a lot of people until they could afford to move somewhere else” — a familiar scene today in thousands of suburban communities.

The first step in Arlington’s revival was improved transit service, including a number of stops on the Washington Metro subway system. But most of the streets were still designed to move cars as quickly as possible with little regard for the impact on pedestrians and surrounding neighborhoods. “When I took office in 1996, traffic was the biggest issue in every neighborhood. People were worried about their kids walking to school,” notes Zimmerman, who left the county board in 2013 to become Vice-president of Economic Development for Smart Growth America.

The county board, spurred on by neighborhood leaders, adopted an “urban village” approach to planning, which Zimmerman says, “really resonated with people — the idea of comfort and community while still being cosmopolitan. Being both suburban and urban at the same time.”

One strong focus of this plan was to make walking more safe and convenient. A task force on traffic calming was launched and the outdated policy of charging homeowners for the cost of building new sidewalks — still common throughout the US — was eliminated.

Ninety percent of all residential streets now have sidewalks (up from 73 percent in 1997), and traffic on seven of the county’s nine busiest roads has declined between 5 and 23 percent since 1996. As a result, walking and biking now account for16.6 percent of all trips around town.

The county’s population has now climbed to 220,000, and it’s attracting many young professionals and families who could afford to live in wealthier suburbs but prefer Arlington’s walkability and sense of community.

“This could be done anywhere,” Zimmerman counsels. “It doesn’t depend on big-scale transit, it depends on good urban design.”

Walking As a Way of Life

Peter Owen, a lawyer who grew up in nearby McLean, Virginia, chose to live in Arlington after studying at University of Virginia, William & Mary and Harvard because he wanted to be close to his family but still enjoy opportunities to walk.

Still old habits die hard, he admits. “It took me about four months of living here to stop driving in my car to the grocery store, even though I lived just a few blocks away.” Owen still owns a car, but says it stays in the garage most of the time.

When asked why walking is so important to him, Owen has plenty to say: “I value the serendipitous encounters with my neighbors and the sense of connection to this place. You notice lots more things, like kids playing, when you’re living at five miles per hour.”

“It’s dramatically different walking here than in the 1990s,” says Dennis Leach, Arlington’s Director of Transportation, who lived here for years before joining the county staff. “You see all these people in places that used to be nowhere. It shows that if you do the infrastructure and land use right, you can provide people more viable transportation options and good places to walk, which has benefits for social equity, health and a sense of community.”

Key actions that make Arlington’s streets more walkable include:

— Crosswalks, which are clearly defined so motorists know where to look for walkers;

— Bulb outs, which extend the sidewalk a few feet into an intersection to shorten pedestrians’ crossing distance;

— Median islands, which offer pedestrians a mid-point refuge while crossing wide, busy streets;

Bike lanes, which not only encourage people to bike instead of drive, but also increase the distance between sidewalks and rushing traffic;

— Pro-pedestrian zoning, which enhances the walking experience through measures like requiring first-floor retail shops or windows on buildings along pedestrian routes;

— Road Diets, a new step for Arlington, in which moderately traveled four lane road are reduced to two through-lanes with an alternating left-turn lane in the middle, creating space for bike lanes or wider sidewalks;

Complete Streets, a county policy that all modes of transportation must be considered in street reconstruction projects;

Transportation Demand Management, a sophisticated strategic plan that looks at traffic issues involved in all development decisions, and offers incentives for businesses to locate in walkable places served by transit.

Of course, it takes more than crosswalks and sidewalks to get people walking. That’s why nearly everyone I spoke with Arlington pointed to the work of WalkArlington, a county-sponsored initiative to encourage people to get back on their feet.

WalkArlington developed 25 walking routes known as Walkabouts around the county, highlighting neighborhoods’ history, community resources and attractions. The WalkArlington Works program helps employers and staff to boost walking in the workplace, both for commuting and breaks during the workday. The organization is part the county’s Car-Free Diet program, an innovative approach that helps families figure how living without a car or car lite (using just one private car) would work for them. WalkArlington also excites kids about getting around on foot with programs such as Walk to School Day and walking school buses (in which parents become bus drivers on foot, picking up kids at their doors and walking them to school).

Arlington is taking steps toward fulfilling the dream of many residents, best articulated by the county’s former Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Charlie Denney who grew up here: “Our goal would be to build a community where every 8-year-old can go all by themselves to buy an ice cream cone.”


10 More Suburbs Making Great Strides in Walking

Walking is gaining ground in many post-World War II suburban communities, including:

Edina, Minnesota — In 1956 this town just outside Minneapolis inaugurated the modern suburban era by opening the first enclosed shopping mall surrounded by vast acres of parking. Now Edina is working hard to evolve into a 21st century suburb, where there’s a place for walking and biking too. 

Lakewood, Colorado This Denver suburb traded a failed shopping mall for a built-from-scratch downtown offering shops, homes, offices, restaurants, Whole Foods, Target, a town common, a bowling alley and an Irish pub, all within close and pleasurable walking distance.

Bethesda, Silver Spring & White Flint, Maryland — Real estate developer and business professor Christopher Leinberger calls the DC region the most walkable metropolitan area in the US, edging out New York City on the strength of its suburban areas. Indeed, Silver Spring, White Flint and Bethesda may someday challenge Arlington for the title of America’s most walkable suburb.

Kirkland, University Place, Smamamish, Redmond & Bellevue Washington — Seattle is neck-and-neck with DC for pioneering walkable suburbs. Dan Burden, one of America’s leading experts on pedestrian friendly communities who works with Blue Zones, lists these five towns as taking big steps: Kirkland, Bellevue, University Place, Redmond and Sammamish.

And it’s worth keeping an eye on Tigard, Oregon, a Portland suburb, whose city council passed a resolution last November to make the community “the most walkable city in the Pacific Northwest.”


Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to create more healthy, happy, enjoyable communities. He is the author of the Great Neighborhood Book. His website: JayWalljasper.

Photo courtesy Graham Coreil-Allen, licensed under Creative Commons.

Solutions for a More Walkable America

Walking Movement

Research shows that exercising outdoors, especially in nature, can improve our health and concentration and might expedite our natural healing processes.

A diverse coalition that links fields as varied as business, education, health care, transportation, recreation, social justice, community revitalization and grassroots organizing, the walking movement is advancing on many fronts to encourage Americans to walk more and remove the barriers that keep us off our feet. “Every profession is now starting to see the importance of walkability in our communities — real estate, health care, traffic engineering, economic development, urban planning, sustainability,” reports Dan Burden, Walkability Expert for the Blue Zones project who has traveled to more 3,500 communities over the past four decades to promote walking.

A lot of energy is being generated by organizations involved with the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and America Walks, but the loosely organized movement includes other players too, some of whom have been working on these issues for years and others who were fired up recently about the potential of walking to strengthen our health, our lives, our communities, our economy, our nation and the world.

Here are some of the promising developments, strategies, messages and tools that are now emerging to promote walking:

Vision Zero for Safe Streets: 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 US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently announced an all-out effort to apply the department’s resources to boost bike and pedestrian safety the same as they do auto and airline safety. Secretary Foxx — former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina — notes that pedestrian deaths rose 6 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. 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, 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 is a major theme for AARP too, 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.

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.

Complete Streets: The simple idea that 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 US 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, more narrow auto lanes, roundabouts and road diets are among the innovations that have been adopted many places. The goals of Complete Streets are to provide protection for people on foot and bike, to make other modes of travel more visible to motorists, to encourage shared use of the road and to reduce motor vehicle speeds.

Health Impact Assessments: Evidence is piling up that walking improves our health and saves big money in health care costs, but how do we make sure this is factored into public decision making about new projects? The World Health Organization has developed a tool for that, says public health and transportation consultant Mark Fenton. The Health Economic Analysis Tool allows planners and engineers to gauge how an increase in walking or bicycling trips will extend people’s lives, and then places a dollar value on that outcome similar to those used to decide whether other transportation safety measures are worth the extra expense.

The Healing Properties of Nature and the Outdoors: Not all exercise offers the same health benefits, according to 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. 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 9 states), Group Health (25 clinics in Washington state), Greenville Health System (7 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 outwalking. 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 only a few minutes away by foot. The city soon embraced his guerrilla campaign, and official walk wayfinding signs are found around town. Tamasulo has launched Walk [Your City] to help other communities show how easy it is to get around on your own power.

Walking Marathons and Half-Marathons: By nature, Americans are full of aspirations, always pushing themselves to do bigger things. So 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. Right now there are only a handful of walking marathons, and walkers are often tolerated more than welcomed at running marathons. But as America’s population ages and more folks discover the pleasures of walking, this is an idea whose time is coming.

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 could 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. Visit his website.

Photo by Fotolia/Jacek Chabraszewski

Community Leaders Looking Forward to PeopleForBikes 2015 Tours

Woman and dog on a bike

The PeopleForBikes tours give insight into how strong bicycling systems can improve mobility, quality of life and the economy.

Imagine a major city where 35 percent of all traffic is people on bikes. Or think even bigger—an entire nation where 27 percent of all trips are pedal-powered.

This is not some Utopia dreamed up by a 24-year-old after too many handcrafted beers. These are real places located in modern societies with high levels of car ownership. Places not so different from the US named Copenhagen and the Netherlands.

Don’t believe it? Go there, and you can see for yourself. You’ll be surprised to find these are great places for everyone, no matter how they get around, because cities that work for bicyclists are more vital, prosperous, convenient and attractive places to live and work.

It’s never been easier for local leaders across the US to experience life in these world-class communities. Next summer PeopleForBikes, a Colorado-based non-profit, is organizing tours of Denmark and the Netherlands to offer public officials, planners, civic activists and business leaders practical lessons about how to help their own cities thrive. (Minimum of four participants from each community.)

“These tours are 20 percent about bikes and 80 percent about how to make great places full of economic, social and cultural wealth,” said PeopleForBikes’ Zach Vanderkooy in a phone conversation from Amsterdam, where he was leading a group of officials from Atlanta, Seattle and Boston.

“Nothing is better than getting on a bike to see how it feels,” said Rick Dimino, CEO of the Boston business coalition A Better City, who was part of the recent Netherlands tour.  “We saw some very creative and robust ways that a strong bicycling system can improve mobility, quality of life and our economy in the US.”

“I took hundreds of pictures on those trips and I gave many slideshows for our planners and transportation people to show what could be done,” remembers Gabe Klein, former Director of the Chicago Department of Transportation, who visited Danish and Dutch cities on PeopleForBikes study tours.

Chicago, never noted previously as a great place to bicycle, is now ranked as America’s #2 Bike City by Bicycling magazine. That’s because the city is now second only to New York (Bicycling’s #1 city) in the number of protected bike lanes—bike routes on busy streets that are physically separated from fast-moving vehicles. According to Vanderkooy, “protected lanes together with slow-speed local streets and off-street paths create a seamless transportation system that strengthens public transit and helps keep all traffic well-organized and free-flowing.”

Since 2009, more than 275 leaders from American communities coast-to-coast have enjoyed up-close and personal experiences with world-class transportation infrastructure and public spaces on PeopleForBikes study tours, including current or future transportation directors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago as well as the Transportation Manager for Facebook.

Up to this point, the tours have been by-invitation only, but applications are now being accepted for next summer’s expanded PeopleForBikes World Class Cities 2015. With only 100 spots available on eight tours, candidates are encouraged to apply as soon as possible to be part of “this five-day rolling conversation about transforming US streets”.

Brian Payne, President of the Central Indiana Community Foundation and a participant in a recent study tour to Denmark and Sweden, has already snapped up 12 spots for a delegation from Indianapolis. “We’re planning to bring neighborhood leaders, traffic engineers, city council members and public works employees,” Payne says, “because these trips change how people think about and experience a city, especially when they can all share moments of inspiration.”

“It’s a serious trip,” Payne adds. “You get up early in the morning and go all day and then go out to dinner to talk over everything you’ve learned. But you’re studying what makes a city livable and great, and that’s a lot of fun.”

Alumni of the tours enthuse about discovering great ideas that can be applied back home, not only European examples but also what they learn from peers in other American cities. “We’ll be taking a trip to Indianapolis,” explains Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership who was on the same tour as Payne. “We want to see what they’re doing there.”

Indianapolis, a city that until now was more famous for car racing than bike riding, has become one of America’s leaders in protected bike lanes. Payne’s foundation launched a campaign to create the Cultural Trail, a bike and pedestrian route separated from traffic that winds for eight miles through the center of the city. A study from Indiana University’s Center for Urban Policy and the Environment calculates that the Cultural Trail’s impact on residential and commercial development and tourism will add $863 million dollars and 11,000 jobs to the local economy.

Vanderkooy stresses that the point of these study tours is not for local US leaders to simply copy what they see in Denmark or the Netherlands, but to stimulate their creativity to find the best ways to promote social and economic vitality in their own communities. He explains that the workshops, seminars and firsthand experience on the streets help them “figure out how to do if faster—and better—in America.”

“Having a mix of people from across disciplines on the tours is very valuable,” counsels Seleta Reynolds, the new General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, who visited Denmark in 2012 when she was working in San Francisco.  “We brought some people from the financial side and some from the technical side, which made it easier to start making changes as soon as we got home.”

Three weeks after they returned home from the Netherlands, a delegation from Madison, Wisconsin was laying the groundwork for protected bike lanes. Chicago Alderwoman Pat Dowell quickly settled a controversy about bike lanes in her South Side ward and helped expand bike education programs for youth after seeing what’s possible in Denmark. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto toured Danish cities and Malmo, Sweden, with PeopleForBikes in late June—and by early September, with help from the local business community, the city had built three new protected bike lanes.

For Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks, who toured Denmark in June, the transformation was personal as well as professional. “I once had been skeptical of bike lanes, and by the time I went to Copenhagen I was a supporter. Now I am fierce advocate.”

“I got a new bike—my first serious adult bike—and rode 100 miles the first week I was home, even in my suit,” he boasts. “A friend who knows me really well said that when I’m on a bike I just look happier. I’ve got my whole family biking more now—it’s healthy for everyone.”

Brooks is helping lead the push for major bike improvements in Denver. “Anytime we re-do streets we’re going to think about protected bike lanes, bike boulevards and wider sidewalks—the whole complete streets idea.”

And he’s planning a bike event for community people in his diverse downtown district. “I came back excited about how to make biking more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-age.”


Jay Walljasper was an editor at Utne Reader from 1984 to 2004, serving as executive editor, editor and editorial director. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and editor of Commons magazine. He writes, speaks and consults for a variety of organizations about creating strong, vital communities. Read more on his website.

Photo by Fotolia/connel_design

How to Prevent Pedestrian Fatalities

Pedestrians crossing the street

Ways of reducing pedestrian fatalities include shortening crosswalks and making them more visible.

More than 4,500 pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America (see earlier Utne blog). This is not an inevitable fact of modern life. These deaths are preventable, as shown by the dramatic decline of pedestrian fatalities (as well as bicyclists and motorists) in Sweden after they adopted the Vision Zero approach to traffic safety.

The gravest danger to walkers and bicyclists as well as motorists is other motorists who drive dangerously. According to data collected by the New York City Department of Transportation from 2008-2012, “dangerous driver choices” contribute to pedestrian deaths in 70 percent of cases. “Dangerous pedestrian choices” is responsible in 30 percent of cases and joint responsibility in 17 percent of cases.

As the old saying goes, speed kills. Two landmark studies, one from the US and one from the UK, found that pedestrians are killed:

— 5 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 20 mph

— 37-45 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 30 mph

— 83-85 percent of the time when struck by a car traveling 40 mph.

In light of these findings, it’s scary to realize that traffic on many if not most American roads travels closer to 40 mph than 20 mph.

“If we could do one switch to make safer streets it would be to reduce car speeds to 20 mph, which would reduce pedestrian fatalities by 90 percent,” says Scott Bricker, Executive Director of the America Walks pedestrian advocacy network. America Walks also plays a big role in Every Body Walk!, a collaborative of citizens, businesses and organizations across many fields convened by the health care non-profit Kaiser Permanente.

This means more than lowering speed limits. Charlie Zegeer, project manager at the University of North Carolina’s authoritative Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) says, “Research shows that lowering a speed limit without other improvements like road design changes or improved police enforcement doesn’t work to slow traffic—it’s the roadway design that affects the speed.”

Here’s a few of practical steps to slow speeds, deter distracted driving and help make walking a safer, comfortable and enjoyable experience for everyone. This is where Vision Zero hits the road.

Reduce the number of travel lanes on wide streets wherever possible. Downsizing four-lane suburban and urban streets to two travel lanes with an alternating turn lane in the middle has become a popular trend across the country. Not only does this create safer streets, it lessens noise for residents and creates an opportunity to add sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaping. (This is known as a road diet, lane reduction or 2+1 road.)

Reduce the width of travel lanes. Wide lanes send an unmistakable message for drivers to speed up.

Reduce the length of crosswalks. A shorter walk across the street is a safer one. This can be done in a number of ways, but most commonly by extending the sidewalk out into the intersection. (This is known as a curb extension or bulb-out.)

Add raised medians islands in the middle of busy streets as a refuge for crossing pedestrians. This has been shown to reduce traffic accidents by 56 percent, according to Gil Penalosa of 8-80 Cities.

Make crosswalks more visible. Elevate them to curb level (known as speed tables), or brightly mark them with wide swaths of paint.

Give pedestrians a head start at traffic lights. Five seconds allows pedestrians to enter the crosswalk first and be more visible to motorists, says Penalosa. Lining up waiting cars a few feet back from the intersection can also be helpful.

Ban right on red turns at busy intersections. Drivers, busy watching out for other cars, often don’t see pedestrians crossing the street on green lights.

Keep the turning radius 90 degrees at intersections. Rounded street corners encourage drivers to turn without stopping or looking for pedestrians.

Install traffic circles, roundabouts, speed humps, raised crosswalks and other traffic calming devices, which help motorists drive safely and keep an eye out for pedestrians.

Convert one-way streets to two-way, which encourages safer, slower driving.

Pay close attention to road designs at bus stops. Pedestrians often rush across the street to catch their bus, not paying attention to oncoming traffic.

Create pedestrian streets, bridges and underpasses in busy areas where other measures are not feasible to minimize conflict with traffic and enhance the convenience of walking.

Separate bike lanes from car lanes on busy streets. Protected bike lanes create a more comfortable, enjoyable trip for pedestrians too.

Strict enforcement of laws against speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians, drunk driving and reckless driving. The loss of loved one killed by a car is no less tragic than one killed by a gun.

Install red light cameras and other means of photo enforcement. It’s expensive to station a police car at every unsafe intersection, but technology can nab lawbreakers at a fraction of the cost. Washington DC now uses cameras to detect and fine drivers who do not yield right-of-way to pedestrians as well as those who speed or run red lights, says Charlie Zegeer of the Pedestrian and Bicycling Information Center.

Establish Safe Routes to Schools campaigns, which bring educators, parents, neighbors and kids themselves together to find safe, satisfying ways for students to walk and bike to school.

Implement training programs about pedestrian safety for traffic engineers, transportation planners, police, city officials, citizens and children. “All the kids in the Netherlands have three weeks instruction in the rules of the road at school,” notes Penalosa. “They role play being pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.”

Put Pedestrians First. “Every city should have a by-law of one sentence stating: “In this city, pedestrians come first,” declares Penalosa. “Everyone is a pedestrian at some point during the day, even if you are just walking from your parking space. So everyone has a stake in Vision Zero.”

“These pedestrian improvements also typically improve motorists’ and bicyclists’ safety,” Zegeer adds. “It’s a win-win-win. Everyone’s safer.”


Jay Walljasper was an editor at Utne Reader from 1984 to 2004, serving as executive editor, editor and editorial director. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and editor of Commons magazine. He writes, speaks and consults for a variety of organizations about creating strong, vital communities. Read more on his website.

Photo by Fotolia/vbaleha

American Cities Beginning to Embrace Pedestrian Safety

crosswalk

More than 4,500 pedestrians are killed by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America.

A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition studying ten years of data found that 16 times more people were killed crossing the street than in natural disasters over the that same period. Another 68,000 walkers on average are injured every year. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors and people of color, according to the report. 

This pedestrian safety crisis is even more dire internationally. More than 270,000 people are killed while walking every year—22 percent of a total 1.24 million traffic fatalities, according to the World Health Organization.

“It’s like an airplane falling out of the sky every other day. If that actually happened, the whole system would be ground to a halt until the problem was fixed,” notes Scott Bricker, Executive Director of America Walks, a coalition of walking advocacy groups. “We need to address this terrible problem with the same urgency.”

“Where’s the moral outrage?” asks Katherine Kraft, America Walks’ National Coalition Director and Coalition Director of Every Body Walk!, a collaborative of citizens, businesses and organizations across many fields convened by the health care non-profit Kaiser Permanente.

Unfortunately, pedestrian deaths (and all traffic fatalities) are viewed as an inevitable side effect of modern life. “People accept this as normal, just as 100 years ago most people accepted that women could not vote,” observes Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8-80 Cities, an international organization working to make streets safe for people of all ages.

Yet recent history offers genuine hope for making our streets safer. A generation ago domestic abuse and drunk driving were seen as sad, unalterable facts of human nature. But vigorous public campaigns to prevent these tragedies have shown remarkable results, offering clear evidence that destructive human behavior can be curbed when we put our minds to it. 

Sweden Paves the Way for Zero Traffic Deaths

Campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country from Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon.

This new safety strategy, called Vision Zero, is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden, where overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000—making Swedish streets the safest in the world according to a front-page story in the New York Times. Pedestrian deaths in the country have also plunged 50 percent since 2009.

The Economist magazine reports that Sweden accomplished all this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design. The influential conservative newsweekly cites improved crosswalks, lowered urban speed limits, pedestrian zones, barriers separating cars from bikes and pedestrians, and narrowing streets for the impressive drop in traffic deaths. 

Sweden takes a far different approach than conventional transportation planning, where “road users are held responsible for their own safety” according to the website Vision Zero Initiative. Swedish policy by contrast believes that to save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist and walker errors, “based on the simple fact that we are human and we make mistakes.” This is similar to the Netherlands’ policy of Forgiving Roads, which has reduced traffic fatalities by 75 percent since the 1970s, compared to less than a 20 percent reduction in the US over the same period.

Three US states that adopted aggressive measures to cut traffic deaths similar to Vision Zero—Utah, Minnesota and Washington—all have seen traffic fatalities decline by 40 percent or more, 25 percent better than the national average.

Streets of New York

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio won office last year on the promise of reducing traffic deaths in a city where someone is killed or seriously injured by a motor vehicle every two hours on average. 

“The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable,” he wrote in a letter to New Yorkers. “They happen to people who drive and to those who bike, but overwhelmingly, the deadly toll is highest for pedestrians—especially our children and seniors.” Traffic accidents are the largest preventable cause of death for children under 14 in New York, and the second highest source of fatal injuries for people over 65.

In May New York’s City Council passed 11 bills and six resolutions to implement de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan across many city departments, including:

-Increased police enforcement for speeding, failure to yield to pedestrians and dangerous driving;

-A campaign in the state legislature to allow the city to lower speed limits to 25 mph (and 20 mph on some streets), which passed in June;

-Safety improvements such as traffic calming, speed cameras, and “slow zones” on streets;

-Stricter scrutiny of taxi drivers’ safety records;

-Street safety curriculum in schools; and

-Creation of a permanent Vision Zero Task Force at City Hall.

One of New York’s biggest problems, according to walking and bike advocates, is that the police department focuses far more resources on street crime than on street safety, even though 356 people were killed in traffic accidents last year (half of them pedestrians and bicyclists), compared to 333 murders.  Advocates cheered when de Blasio chose as his police chief William Bratton, who has spoken out about the need to curb traffic injuries and deaths.

“It’s really impressive what Mayor de Blasio has done,” explains Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. “He has put his money where his mouth is” by finding funding for street safety projects and increased police enforcement in an era of tight budgets.

Streets of San Francisco & Beyond

After New York, Vision Zero planning in the U.S. is most advanced in San Francisco, which last year saw a near-record high of 25 pedestrian and bike fatalities. Walk San Francisco and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition recently launched the Vision Zero Coalition with the San Francisco School District and more than two dozen community organizations. Their mission is to encourage city officials to:

-Fix dangerous intersections and streets;

-Ensure “full and fair enforcement of traffic laws,” with an emphasis on curbing dangerous behavior;

-Invest in training and education for all road users, focusing on helping frequent drivers share the road with walkers and bicyclists;

-Eliminate all traffic deaths in the city by 2024.

“Vision Zero is about changing the culture of our dangerous streets...” Nicole Schneider of Walk San Francisco and Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicyle Coalition wrote recently. “Vision Zero is also about empowering historically underrepresented communities that are disproportionately burdened by traffic injuries and chronic disease.”

The plan has been already been endorsed by the San Francisco Police Department.

A number of local advocacy organizations around the country (New York’s Transportation Alternatives, Walk San Francisco, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Bike Pittsburgh, Oregon’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Oregon Walks) are working with the national Alliance for Biking and Walking to launch the Vision Zero Strategic Collaborative to push for these policies across the nation.

America’s Emerging Walking Revolution

America is on the verge of a walking revolution. After many decades in which walking continually lost ground to other modes of transportation and  recreation, there’s growing interest across many fields about restoring walking as a way of life. A diverse network of organizations came together at the first-ever walking summit last year to champion walking as one solution to our health care crisis (one-half hour of walking each day reduces the risk of many major diseases), as a tool for strengthening our hometowns (people out walking heighten the sense of community and security), as a clear route to reducing climate change (more folks walking means less CO2 emissions) and as a boost for the economy (by lowering health care costs and stimulating local business districts).

Katherine Kraft warns, “We won’t increase walkability—which is good for people’s and communities’ health—until we make the streets more safe and comfortable for walking.” Vision Zero, she says, is the path toward a better life for all of us.

“Everyone wants to live in a community that they can enjoy.” agrees Scott Bricker. “Where their children can grow up safely.  Where we can all live, work and play without fear at any age.  We have the public will to do this.”


Jay Walljasper was an editor at Utne Reader from 1984 to 2004, serving as executive editor, editor and editorial director. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and editor of Commons magazine. He writes, speaks and consults for a variety of organizations about creating strong, vital communities. Read more on his website.

Government Crackdown on Innovative Seed Library

seeds

Small town library's plans to loan seeds raises concerns about "agri-terrorism"

It was an inspiring, All-American example of a community project enriching the life of a small town—until the Agriculture Department swooped in to try and shut it down. 

This shocking story from Mechanicsburg in rural central Pennsylvania leaves people wondering if the all-for-the-market ethic that increasingly dominates business and government policy will stamp out the cooperative collaborative spirit that has guided American life for centuries and human progress for eons.

Here’s the story: During Earth Week last spring the Joseph T. Simpson Library in Mechanicsburg offered library patrons an opportunity to “check out” seeds, which they could plant in their gardens and then “return” at harvest time by collecting seeds from mature vegetables. 

How could anyone object to such an uplifting project, which encourages people’s self-reliance, healthy food and the continuation of traditional heirloom species? The idea for the seed library had come from the Cumberland County Commission for Women based upon successful seed libraries and banks around the world. The initial supply came from Seed Savers Exchange, a respected non-profit based in Decorah, Iowa that has been helping gardeners share seeds since 1975.

Library officials had studied similar projects around the country and consulted with the county office of Pennsylvania State University Agricultural Extension about the project. Sixty people had signed up for the program, which was conceived as a pilot project that could bloom across the state.

So imagine librarians’ and patrons’ reaction when lawyers and a high-ranking official of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture arrived in late July to investigate the Simpson Library’s violation of the Pennsylvania Seed Act of 2004, which protects corporations’ interests regarding patents on genetically modified (GMO) crops; this in spite of the fact that the seeds available at the Mechanicsburg Library were heirloom vegetable varieties, most of them organic. Not commercial GMO products.

But Pennsylvania Agricultural Commissioner Barbara Cross defended the costly investigation. “Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario. Protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge,” she declared, adding it makes sense to address the issue now while it was still small.

The county library executive director Jonelle Darr explained that the Seed Act focuses on the selling of seeds, which the library was not doing, reported the local Sentinel newspaper.  

But the library is complying with Agriculture Department’s restrictions, which follow policies drafted by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. They are still able to circulate seeds, but will not accept a library patron’s seeds at the end of the growing season unless they have been tested by a laboratory following protocols of the Association of Official Seed Analysts Inc or are painstakingly labeled with precise scientific information. Informal seed swaps, not sponsored by an organization like a library, are not covered by the policies.


Jay Walljasper was an editor at Utne Reader from 1984 to 2004, serving as executive editor, editor and editorial director. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and editor of Commons magazine. He writes, speaks and consults for a variety of organizations about creating strong, vital communities. Read more on his website.

Photo courtesy Roger Ward, licensed under Creative Commons

Why Trails are America's New Town Squares

Minnehaha Falls

Americans are people on the go! The urge to move is part of our national character since the beginning of the Republic and greatly influences how we spend our leisure time. 

In the 19th Century, Sunday drives in carriages (and later cars) became a favorite pastime. Urban planners responded by laying out lovely green ribbons of parkways—which remain beloved places to this day in many communities.

But for harried 21st Century commuters, who spend long hours in cars or buses each week, driving seems too reminiscent of work. On evenings and weekends they want to take off on bikes, skates, longboards or their own two feet. That’s why communities are now busy creating new trails and greenways across America and throughout the world.

Trails are becoming  the new town square where people bump into their neighbors, sparking conversations and friendships. When speaking to audiences around the country, I often begin by asking people to name a favorite commons in their lives. More often than not, one of the first few mentioned is a local rail-trail or parkway.

Let me map out some of my most favorite pastimes here in Minneapolis. I bike a dozen blocks south from my house to Minnehaha Creek Trail, a green oasis lining a rushing stream that was protected from development in the 1880s. I follow its winding, wooded path through city neighborhoods to Minnehaha Falls, highlighted in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha”. Watching the water tumble over a 50-foot wall of rock endlessly fascinates and relaxes me. Then I amble over to Sea Salt, a café in a historic park building that serves topnotch fried fish, best enjoyed on the outdoor patio. Sipping a beer while waiting for my fried clams to arrive, I plot the rest of my journey. 

From here one trail leads along the Mississippi River to Fort Snelling, the first white settlement in Minnesota built at the confluence of the Missisippi and Minnesota Rivers, which Dakota Indian people see as the center of the universe. Or I could follow a trail north along the river gorge and past St. Anthony Falls to downtown Minneapolis. Or south around the bend and through the woods to downtown St. Paul. Or I could turn back the way I came to explore Minneapolis’s fabled chain of lakes, six of which lie next to the trail in rapid succession. Any route I choose will lead to more trails stretching miles in all directions throughout the region.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul region is blessed with a superb network of trails—made possible by visionaries of the 19th Century who fought to ensure public access to local lakeshores, riverbanks and creeksides for public use, and which have been impressively expanded in recent years thanks to the work of a new generation of visionaries. 

Many communities large and small across the US are now installing impressive trail systems and linear parks.  Indianapolis’s new Cultural Trail, for instance, strikes a bold note by fashioning a new passageway spearated from street traffic right through the heart of a built-up city. Detroit sports the impressive DeQuindre Cut rail-trail, which connects the lively Riverwalk to the bustling Eastern Market. (Who says no one walks or bikes in the Motor City?) Even densely packed Manhattan is thrilled about the High Line, an elevated freight train track now reclaimed as parkland. With help from the Trust for Public Land, Chicago is now at work on the 606, a 2.7-mile linear park and trail on an elevated freight line. Many suburbs now boast trails that don’t simply loop around a pond, but carry people to schools, libraries, farmers markets, restaurants, or shopping districts.  Americans are not content to simply pedal or stroll along a trail; they want places to go and things to do.

On a recent Sunday, I headed to the Midtown Greenway, a rail-to-trail a dozen blocks north of my house and followed it more than 20 miles west through the suburbs to Carver Regional Park—a glorious expanse of woods and prairie dotted by lakes and more bike trails. I stopped for lunch at a deli in Victoria, a small town right on the trail. Eating some German sausage at a sidewalk table, I remembered how I felt moving to Minneapolis from Iowa many years ago. I immediately took to big city life—except for one thing. I dearly missed being able to bike all the way out into the countryside. The roads were too inhospitable in Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs. 

But now thanks to citizen advocates and park officials here who have built an stellar trail system throughout the metropolitan area, biking out to the country is now available to anyone in moderately good shape with a few hours to spare. You can even rent a bike at the numerous stations of the Nice Ride bike share system.


Jay Walljasper was an editor at Utne Reader from 1984 to 2004, serving as executive editor, editor and editorial director. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and editor of Commons magazine. He writes, speaks and consults for a variety of organizations about creating strong, vital communities. Read more on his website.

Photo courtesy Dan, licensed under Creative Commons