Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Walking is a Basic Human Right

People walking

Safe spaces to walk are essential for decreasing health disparities among Americans.

“We are a nation of walkers,” declared US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the 2nd National Walking Summit October 29. “Walking is a simple thing we can do” to make America more healthy.

That’s the message of his recent Call to Action on Walking and Walkable Communities, which highlighted the powerful fact that, “an average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity — such as brisk walking — can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes” as well as other debilitating chronic diseases.

Dr. Murthy told on overflowing crowd of 500 people from 44 states that, “we need to improve infrastructure in communities to make walking easier.” It’s about justice, he emphasized. It’s about making sure “everyone in America has a good shot at being healthy.”

Equal access to good health was a goal that resounded throughout the Walking Summit in Washington, D.C., organized by America Walks and presented by the Kaiser Permanente integrated health care delivery system, along with two dozen co-sponsors spanning the health care, philanthropy, business, non-profit and transportation fields.

“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” noted opening keynote speaker Dr. Robert A. Bullard, founder of the Environmental Justice movement and dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

Jaw-dropping silence seized the room as Bullard showed a succession of US maps illustrating how historic segregation and current poverty strongly correlate with low levels of walking and childhood opportunity as well as high levels of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. “Health disparities don’t just happen by accident,” he explained. They are the tragic legacy of racism and unequal economic opportunity.

“Tell me your zip code and I can tell you how healthy you are,” Bullard said. “That should not be… All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”

Ron Sims, who sponsored some of the first research identifying zip codes as an ironclad determinant of health while chief executive of King County, Washington, closed the three-day event on an equally powerful note. “If you have parks, playgrounds, community gardens, and wide sidewalks, you have good health outcomes,” he offered. “If you have walkable communities kids will do better in school…seniors will be healthier.”

He drew on his experience as an activist in African-American neighborhoods of Seattle, as well as a former Deputy US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to map out the starting point to reach healthy communities: new or improved sidewalks, better lighting, access to water and greenspace. “You have no idea how powerful you are,” he said to the hundreds of walking activists in the room. “I can’t overstate that you are a movement that can ensure this country achieves its great dreams.”


The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy works to turn unused railroad lines into walkable trails.

Sims’ optimism is grounded in firm evidence that Americans are getting back on their feet. The number of Americans walking has increased 6 percent since 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That adds up to 20 million more people on sidewalks and trails.

Americans are walking not just for health, but also for relaxation, community connection, neighborhood revitalization and the sheer fun of it. The co-chairs of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative —Joan Dorn of the City University of New York School of Medicine and Kevin Mills of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy — outlined some of the reasons for this good news:

• The Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking and Walkable communities generated huge public discussion, including more than six billion media impressions

• The US Department of Transportation is improving life for people who walk or bike with Secretary Anthony Foxx’s Safer People, Safer Streets initiative, which more than 200 cities have joined.

• In recent years, $1.5 billion dollars have gone toward walking and biking improvements, although that’s still less than one percent of overall transportation spending, as Sims noted.

Vision Zero campaigns — redesigning traffic policies with the goal of no fatalities for walkers, bikers and motorists — have been launched in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, San Jose, Boston and other cities.

• More than 700 towns, counties and states have enacted Complete Streets policies, which consider the needs of all users — not just vehicles — in building and maintaining roads.

Safe Routes to School programs are ensuring kids can walk or bike to school in virtually every corner of the country.

• On the first day of the Summit, Capitol Hill was swarming with more than 150 walking advocates, who met with 147 Congress members from 33 states, almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

• The Summit attracted more than 520 participants, up 30 percent from the first Summit in 2013 and was more racially and regionally diverse. Nearly a hundred received scholarships to make the event more accessible to people with limited resources. “All of us with divergent missions — from health care to social justice to land trusts to neighborhood revitalization — have a convergent strategy to get more people out walking and create safe places to walk everywhere,” noted Kaiser Permanente vice-president Tyler Norris.

The Summit’s message of walking as a fundamental right drew new attention to groups that suffer the most from unsafe streets for pedestrians in many American communities: people of color, low-income people, older people, children and the disabled.

Statistics that were frequently quoted in workshops and conversations in the corridors included:

• People walking in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed by cars.

• African-Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.

• The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly for people 45 and over, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

• Roughly half of all US kids walked or biked to school in 1970, compared to 16 percent today (up from 13 percent in 2007), according to Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.

Practical solutions to these problems were detailed walking advocates from around the country in 70 breakout sessions focused on specific walking issues.

In the San Joaquin Valley of California, Latina women started walking groups to improve their health and when local officials said it would cost too much to build walking trails, they enlisted their construction-worker husbands to do it. In nearby Ceres, California, sixth-graders did an assessment of walking conditions near their school, which was incorporated into a Safe Routes to Schools masterplan. In Clarksdale, Mississippi, older African-Americans who felt scared to walk because of crime organized neighborhood watch groups to make their community safer. In Raleigh, North Carolina, a graduate student created signs informing people how easy it is to walk to local attractions all on his own, which were later adopted by the city government.

“The Summit shows the movement is expanding from walking as a way to improve public health to walking as a human and civil right, a moral imperative,” said Kate Kraft, National Coalition Director for America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, which co-hosted the Summit. “A community that is walkable for everyone means less disenfranchisement and more connection.”

Jay Walljasper — author of The Great Neighborhood Book — consults, writes and speaks about how to create healthy, strong communities. He is Urban Writer in Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, and can be reached at Jay Walljasper.

Top photo by Fotolia/Pavlo Vakhrushev

Bottom photo by Fotolia/digitalfarmer