Stand up and Sign on for a Walkable America

Reader Contribution by Staff

I honestly expected to sleepwalk through the Equal Footing Summit.

I knew the half-day visioning session for America Walks was a critical and exciting step for the national pedestrian movement. But the September event was sandwiched in the middle of a nearly monthlong conference road trip for me. I was more than a little fried.

Maybe it was the incredible, unparalleled energy of Mark Fenton — the animated former race walking star who talks as fast as his feet can move — who facilitated the discussion. Maybe it was the interactive structure of the session that broke the mold of the tedious talk-at-you format. But the Equal Footing Summit turned out to be the most energizing four hours of advocacy I spent this summer.

And it’s not too late for you to get involved, either.

But, wait. I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m not a pedestrian. I’m certainly not a pedestrian advocate.

But every single one of us is a pedestrian. Even if you’re a die-hard bike commuter. Even if you live in a rural area where walking to your closest neighbor’s house would mean packing a lunch for the journey. Even if you’re so enamored of your motor vehicle that you hop in the car to drive 50 feet to the mailbox. Any way you cut it, walking is the most basic and universal form of human movement. And, even if it’s just traveling from your parking spot or bike rack into your office or local grocery store, you spend some portion of your day as a pedestrian.

And, sadly, walking has become an endangered — and even dangerous — activity in the U.S.

Mindy Craig, president of America Walks writes: “Over the past 50 years, our nation has systematically engineered walking out of daily life. In 1969, walking made up 40 percent of all transportation trips, but in 2008 walking trips decreased to 11 percent. Existing cities and new sprawling communities have become laced with massive, high-speed roadways, unsuitable and even life-threatening for the most ambitious person trying to walk to a destination.”

In the past 15 years, a staggering 76,000 people have been killed walking. And those are just the most direct and visible fatalities. It’s not a coincidence that, as the most basic form of exercise has become treacherous or impossible in many communities, our activity level has plummeted. According to Craig: “The associated healthcare costs resulting from sedentary lifestyles cost American taxpayers, business owners and individual $147 billion in 2006, and could rise to $344 billion by 2018 if trends continue.”

Cast in terms of casualties and costs, the problem doesn’t look so pedestrian. But many of us don’t see our connection immediately. When I strap on my helmet and tangle with traffic as a bicyclist, I assume a clear identity. I’m part of a visible group of people who have distinct and different needs than other road users. We’re conspicuous, and we naturally band together to promote our interests. When I walk to the bus stop on a rainy day, though, I don’t necessarily recognize a shared interest with other folks on the sidewalk.

But I should. We all should. The only way to make walking safe and common again is if we all lend our voices to a national call for walkability.

Here’s where you can start.

Last month, America Walks released its new Strategic Campaign Plan. It’s short and sweet — just 11 pages. But it marks a significant re-launch of the established organization and a revitalization of the pedestrian movement.

No longer will America Walks be a little-known organization with a mere 26 member groups. They’re hoping to get big names, like AARP and the American Heart Society, on board as partners, and bump that number up to 500 organizations by 2012. They’re going to set up an office in Washington, DC., where they’ll create a federal walking policy platform and hire full-time staff to advance its priorities in the halls of Congress. Instead of acting as a clearinghouse of information and helping hand for other groups, America Walks is getting specific — they’ll advance targeted campaigns to reduce automobile speeds and enhance access to transit for seniors.

But you don’t have to be the executive director of an advocacy group or a community organizer at the grassroots to play a role. America Walks is giving everyone a point of entry for this vital campaign. They’ve come up with a simple Vision Statement and they’re hoping to garner 50,000 signatures of support.

Drum roll, please…

“By 2020, walking in everyday life is embraced across America. Streets and neighborhoods are safe and attractive public places that encourage people of all ages, abilities, ethnicities and incomes to walk for exercise, recreation and transportation. Walkable community policies promote health, economic vitality, environmental sustainability and social equity.”

I’ve already added my name. Will you?

Click here to read the plan to make America walkable again — and add your support.