Imagine living in one of America’s great walkable communities.
Your day begins with a stroll—saying hi to neighbors, noticing blooming gardens and enticing shop windows, maybe stopping for a treat on your way to work.
Weekends are even better. You step out your door and join the hum of activity on the sidewalk en route to a coffeeshop, park, shopping district, friend’s home, recreation center or house of worship.
More time on your feet provides an opportunity to reflect on your life (you feel more energetic and creative now that you’re not driving all the time) and your community (it feels more alive now that everyone walks more). Even driving is more fun than it used to be with fewer cars clogging the streets.
And the really good news is that you don’t need to move to another town or a more expensive neighborhood to enjoy these pleasures. Any community can become more walkable if people are willing to get off the couch to make a difference.
Feet on the Street, Coast-to-Coast
We found inspiring stories from places across the US where people got things started in communities not so different from where you live.
• In Baldwin Park, a racially diverse suburb of LA, high levels of childhood obesity are dropping as the result of a community-wide effort to make walking more safe and comfortable.
• In Batesville, Arkansas, and Albert Lea, Minnesota, improvements to boost walking around town are paying off in new residents, businesses and hope for the future.
• In Birmingham, a growing network of walking trails helps address problems arising from decades of economic decline, racial inequity and declining public health.
• In Arlington, Virginia, an innovative plan to transform neighborhoods into foot-friendly villages made it America’s Most Walkable Suburb.
• In Phoenix, ambitious programs to encourage walking are part of a push to become America’s healthiest city.
• In St. Paul, a multicultural community torn apart by freeway construction seeks revival and healing through better pedestrian connections.
• In San Francisco and New York, neighbors are teaming up with public leaders to end all traffic deaths on city streets.
• In Northeast Iowa, small town kids are growing excited about walking to and at school.
• In Seattle, groundbreaking policies curb speeding motorists and prevent traffic crashes.
• In African-American communities coast-to-coast, GirlTrek encourages women to take charge of their health by walking regularly.
• In California’s Central Valley, Latino parents are organizing campaigns to make streets hospitable for people on foot.
• In Indianapolis, leaders from around the world study the Cultural Trail, a 21st century walk-and-bike corridor that has reinvigorated struggling business districts.
• In Greater Philadelphia, a network of bike/walk trails link the entire region—300 miles so far with 450 more planned.
• Even in Oklahoma City, once named America’s “Worst Walking City”, big plans are working to make walking easier, less dangerous and more fun.
Why is Walking Suddenly Popular?
Improvements like these are popping up all over because Americans want to get back on their feet—for better health, stronger communities and happier, more relaxing lives.
The Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found the number of people who regularly walk rose six percent between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available), a jump which translates into 20 million Americans stepping up.
But we still have a long ways to go. Only 48 percent of adults met the CDC’s minimum daily recommendation for walking or other physical activity: 30 minutes a day five days a week (60 minutes daily for kids).
That’s the magic number that cuts your chances of suffering from depression, dementia, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, anxiety, high blood pressure and other serious diseases by 40 percent or more. The American Heart Association lauds walking as the exercise people stick with the most over time. It’s free, requires no special equipment and can be done anytime, usually right out your front door.
Last year, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy singled out walking as a powerful health solution in his landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. “Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy declared. “The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation.”
The rise in walking for recreation, transportation and exercise is also being fueled by new research showing it’s good for us in many ways besides better health:
• Going out for a walk is one of the best ways to meet people and strengthen community connections, which is fun but also boosts our mental and physical health.
• Kids who walk to school do better in their classes, according to Mary Pat King, the National PTA’s Director of Programs and Partnerships. Walking improves students’ concentration, mood, cognitive performance and creativity, explains Dr. Richard Jackson, former Environmental Health Director of the US Centers for Disease Control.
• Metropolitan regions with many walkable neighborhoods perform better economically than those with just a few, according to a new report from the George Washington University School of Business.
• Reduced anger, increased self-control and a greater sense of well-being are other documented benefits of walking , according to 100 Reasons to Walk, issued by Walk with a Doc, an organization of physicians working in 29 states.
Signs of the Times
You don’t have to look far to see signs that Americans are rediscovering the joy of walking.
• Real Simple magazine declared it “America’s untrendiest trend” in a cover story.
• Soul Singer Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video, which highlights the sheer pleasure of strolling down the street, has been watched 850 million times.
• A recent national poll from the National Association of Realtors finds that 79 percent of Americans believe it’s important to live “within an easy walk” of the places they want to go.
• Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has announced an all-out effort to make walking safer in communities everywhere. “Bicycling and walking are as important as any other form of transportation,” he declared at a major transportation conference.
• More than 10 percent of all trips in America are on foot, according to Paul Heberling, Policy Analyst at the US Department of Transportation—and 28 percent of all trips under a mile.
Everybody Has a Right to Walk
“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared Dr. Robert D. Bullard, father of the environmental justice movement in a keynote speech at the National Walking Summit in Washington, D.C. “All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”
Yet it is a stark fact that children, older Americans, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities are injured or killed more frequently while walking (or rolling, in the case of people using wheelchairs or motorized carts).
• 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.
Many disadvantaged people now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, crumbling sidewalks, street crime, poor lighting, or the lack of stores and public places within walking distance.
Poor conditions for walking among low-income households limit their access to jobs and education. One-third of all African Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.
“A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one,” says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. He notes that the average cost of owning and operating one car is about $8,500 a year, even taking into account recent dips is gasoline prices.
The good news is that the right to walk is becoming a major issue, as advocates for social justice, public health, neighborhood revitalization and other causes push for policies to make walking safer and easier in communities all across America. In fact, Secretary of Transportation Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, has made it one of his top priorities with the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative.
Adapted from the book America's Walking Renaissance, which can be downloaded for free.
Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, writes, speaks and consuslts about how to create healthier, happier communities. He lives in Minneapolis and his website is JayWalljasper.com.