Walking is for everyone
A movement is arising for health and happiness for low-income families, people of color and immigrants.
Making America more walkable for people of all incomes and races is a major focus of the National Walking Summit, which is being held today and tomorrow in Washington, DC.
The mission is “to make sure walking is accessible for everyone, especially vulnerable populations in lower socioeconomic communities where infrastructure has not been invested in and pedestrian and public safety are significant issues,” says Tyler Norris, one of the events’ organizers.
Walking is a powerful tool to change the world—think the marches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the journeys of Ghandi—as well as a fundamental human right. To be restrained from free movement is a denial of libery. It also harms your health, according to the Surgeon General.
Yet many disadvantaged people now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, street crime, or a lack of stores and public places within walking distance, which heightens serious problems of poor health, limited transportation options, and overall disillusionment in their communities.
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.
Improving walking options can also help ease the financial burdens on poor families, which spend 42 percent of their income on transportation compared to 22 percent among middle-income Americans. That’s because the average cost of owning and operating one car is $8700 a year .
“This is an issue of equity,” says Gil Peñalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. “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.”
Barriers to walking
There are “disproportionately high pedestrian deaths in low-income communities,” according to US Department of Transportation specialist Paul Heberling. He notes that pedestrians in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed as those in other neighborhoods. African-Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent. This disparity helped spur US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to launch his Safer People, Safer Streets initiative to help everyone walk and bike more.
In addition to traffic injuries, there’s a stigma in low-income communities that people on foot are “losers, ” explains Yolanda Savage-Narva, Director of Health Equity at the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials. Growing up in an African-American community, Savage-Narva recalls, “In Mississippi, it wasn’t normal to walk. It was something that only really poor people did.”
Anita Hairston, transportation specialist at Policy Link, says that African-Americans and Latinos may be wary about taking a stroll due to racial profiling. “Who’s got the right to be on the streets? If a group of young black men are dressed casually, people think: Where is this gang going? What are they going to do? Not everyone has the same experience on the street.”
Despite all that, people in disadvantaged communities still walk more than other Americans. “The fact is that we have twice as many low-income children who are walking or biking to school than those in affluent neighborhoods, even lacking the infrastructure to protect the children who walk and bicycle,” reports Keith Benjamin, a Campaign Manager for the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.
On foot in urban America
Many programs are addressing these problems:
Girl Trek aims to improve black women’s health by organizing communities to walk, even in places where sidewalks are absent and crime rates are high. More than 35,000 African-American women have taken Girl Trek’s pledge to re-establish walking as a healing tradition in their neighborhoods.
Fifteen to 20 women in Anacostia, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., take an invigorating 3.3 mile walk every Saturday morning as part the Just Walk club sponsored by the neighborhood’s Community Wellness Collective.
A walking club can be spotted every Thursday evening on the sidewalks of West Humboldt Park, a largely African-American and Latino neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago—sponsored by the West Humboldt Park Development Council (WHPDC).
“This area has one of the higher diabetes rates in the nation,” explains Isaiah Ross, until recently WHPDC’s community development manager. The Healthy Community Initiative aims to break down people’s isolation, first by bringing neighbors together and then tackling issues that discourage healthy lifestyles. Groups of 8-10 are being organized to tour their immediate neighborhood conducting walk audits and public safety audits. “Are the crosswalks visible at intersections? Is the lighting good enough? ... What can be done to slow down traffic? What’s a safe route for kids to go to school?” are among the questions they seek to answer, according to Isaiah Ross, community development manager for the council.
Five new playgrounds have been built recently in the neighborhood and the city of Chicago has begun sponsoring Play Streets events, where a block is closed off to traffic and people of all ages come to hang out and get to know one another.
Stepping up outside of the city
More poor people live in suburbs today than in cities, and often experience even greater problems because of spotty public transit, lack of sidewalks, wide streets with few pedestrian safety measures and greater walking distances to destinations.
Almost 20 percent of the population of Richmond, a suburban city of 100,000 in the East Bay region of California, live below the poverty line. The city’s struggling Iron Triangle neighborhood---which is approximately 2/3 African-American and 1/3 Latino---has long suffered from poverty and high crime rates, says Dan Burden, a walkability expert at Blue Zones, who has worked in 3000 US communities. Local people seeking to improve their community joined hands to restore Pogo Park, and are now working to make neighborhood routes to the park safe for pedestrians by improving the street design to encourage slow traffic and create a more appealing environment for walking. “This is creating a place filled with lots of things for people to do, where gangs will not go to sell drugs or bully everyone,” Burden says.
Small town residents walk almost as much as Americans living in metropolitan areas, according to a report from Rails to Trails Conservancy. In towns sized 2500-10,000, 7.2 percent of all trips are made on foot and 8.5 percent in towns 10,000 - 50,000, compared to national average of 10.5 percent (and 6.7 percent in newer suburbs), according to the US Department of Transportation.
And rural Americans are enthusiastic about walking. Nine out of ten want to see their communities become more walk-friendly according to a recent survey from the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, and 81 percent want to increase or maintain current public spending on sidewalks and bikeways.
Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a writer, speaker and consultant on making communities better places to live for everyone. Contact him at Jay@JayWalljasper.com.