Category Archives: Walking and biking
A one-of-its-kind pedestrian traffic walk signal recently turned heads in Portugal with a dancing figure that entertained people as they waited for him to tell them when it was safe to cross the street.
The signal—not planned for mass circulation anytime soon—was developed by the manufacturer Smart to advertise its cars’ safety features. And if it saves lives along the way, it’s in sync with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found that 4,432 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2011, up 3 percent from 2010. More than a quarter of the accidents resulting in death happened at traffic intersections, both at marked crosswalks and intersections with traffic lights. Andrea Gielen, PhD, head of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins University, says the school’s research shows that many of these accidents occur because pedestrians are distracted by music in their earphones or by speaking or texting on cellphones.
NHTSA began a campaign to keep pedestrians safer last year and highlights community projects that improve pedestrian safety in a stories section on its website on pedestrian safety. One project, developed at University of California, San Diego, was a presentation at a low-income elementary public school in San Diego, Calif. The English- and Spanish-language presentation demonstrated dangerous scenarios and how to prevent them, such as kids dressed in only dark clothing, which makes them difficult to see at night. NHTSA is updating the site regularly to help communities develop their own safe walking programs.
As for traffic lights themselves, makeovers could be ahead. The Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences has a traffic light subcommittee that presents new research on traffic signal safety at the board’s annual meeting each January. Upcoming topics of interest are likely to include computerized traffic signals that can respond to traffic flow by switching to green sooner when there’s no congestion ahead, as well as a recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that found that traffic lights are easily hacked, which could lead to traffic jams and collisions. Preventing some of the hacking could be as simple as strengthening the passwords of the engineers who control the traffic signals, according to computer engineers at MIT.
Wendy Landman, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group Walk Boston, says intersections could be safer if city agencies talked more. She said the deciding factor for how long a traffic signal should be green for pedestrians is often based on how quickly traffic experts think drivers want to be back on the gas pedal—but that may be too short for many pedestrians, especially at intersections on main roads.
>>Bonus Content: Read a previous NewPublicHealth interview with Andrea Gielen.
Why walk? Well, today’s a good day to walk because it’s National Walking Day, an event hosted by the American Heart Association (AHA). And also every day is a good day to walk because research from the AHA finds that thirty minutes of walking each day had health benefits that include:
- Weight loss
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes
- Increased well being
Walking, like other forms of exercise, releases endorphins linked to reduced depression and increased happiness—which certainly seems to be the case for the folks in the video PSA, Just Walk!, from the American Heart Association.
- National Walking Day
- 2013 Vital Signs report on the benefits of walking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Texting while walking can have a way of changing where we go...such as into a tree trunk or a fountain. However, a recent study in the journal PLOS ONE finds that texting also dramatically changes how we walk.
Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia analyzed 26 health people while walking normally, while reading texts on a cell phone, and while writing a text themselves. They looked at speed and gait, as well as the positions of their heads, torso and arms.
They found that, essentially, when we walk and text we walk in a way that makes texting easier. That focus has a significant impact on our movements, which limits the health benefits of the physical activity.
“We walk much slower when handling a cell phone (even moreso while texting than reading), and we're not very good at sticking to a straight line. Not surprisingly, we tend to keep our heads down, our necks immobile, and our arms locked at our sides. We don't swing our arms, which can be a crucial part of staying balanced while moving.”
Read more at Atlantic Cities.
More than 145 million adults now include walking as part of a physically active lifestyle, according to a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this year. More than 6 in 10 people walk for transportation or for fun, relaxation, or exercise, or for activities such as walking the dog. The percentage of people who report walking at least once for 10 minutes or more in the previous week rose from 56 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2010.
But creating communities amenable for walking takes much more than the proverbial “putting one foot ahead of the other.” Over the last decade, more and more communities have done local walkability assessments, added sidewalks, installed or improved crossing signs and signals, and vastly increased programs such as Walking School Bus, which encourages parents and kids who live a mile or less from school to join safe walking programs.
And behind most of these advances is a walkability advocate who knows the transportation chiefs, the local policymakers and the laws in other jurisdictions that promote or dissuade walking. In Boston, that person is Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to improving walking conditions in cities and towns across Massachusetts.
“Our goal is to make walking and pedestrian needs a basic part of the transportation discussion,” says Landman.
NewPublicHealth spoke with Landman at WalkBoston’s central Boston offices during our visit to the city for the recent American Public Health Association annual meeting.
NewPublicHealth: Why is walking advocacy so important?
Wendy Landman: At WalkBoston we sometimes describe walking as the club that everybody belongs to and nobody joins. Because it’s such a basic element of what every human being does, walking often gets forgotten, and it gets forgotten in many different ways. At the most basic level, walking is often left out of land-use planning and civil engineering. We forget to incorporate sidewalks and safe-street crossings. We forget to design and build our communities so that people can actually walk between places—whether it is kids walking to school or to a friend’s house, or adults walking to shops or church. That’s not to say that we should all live in a scale that’s just walkable, but many things that we do every day, day in and day out, would be better for human beings and for the planet if we could walk to some of them.
Municipal mixed-use zoning is a public health strategy to create more walkable neighborhoods by creating integrated, un-siloed access to daily activities—such as going grocery shopping and traveling to school and work. A recent study in a special issue of the Journal of Health, Politics, Policy and Law funded by Public Health Law Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, evaluated municipal zoning ordinances in 22 California cities to see whether the ordinances improved walkability in those communities. NewPublicHealth spoke with the study’s two authors, Sue Thomas, PhD, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation-Santa Cruz (PIRE) and Carol Cannon, PhD, formerly with PIRE and current associate research scientist at the CDM Group, Inc, a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md.
>>Read the full study.
NewPublicHealth: What was the scope of your study?
Carol Cannon: We looked at ordinances that create municipal mixed use zoning, and whether these laws seem to have an impact on the potential for walking to destinations.
NPH: In what ways were the study and findings innovative?
Got five minutes? Spend it viewing a recent video on walkability from Dan Burden, a reigning expert, who took NewPublic Health on a walkability audit of San Diego during the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. Burden is executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.
The video is a veritable travelogue for walking as the best possible way to get around locally. Burden discusses metrics, safety features and fixes to current streets while video scenes, including happy walkers of all shapes and sizes, flash on screen. Burden makes some pivotal points about walkability, including creating destinations for walkers, adding landscaping to enhance the enjoyment of the walk, and making changes to traffic technology such as replacing some lights with traffic circles to improve safety for drivers, walkers and bikers.
This weekend at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, NewPublicHealth attended a walkability audit of downtown San Diego with the inventor of the tool and "Johnny Appleseed of walkability," Dan Burden. In 2001, TIME magazine named Burden one of the world’s six most important civic innovators. He is currently a senior urban designer and executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, and previously co-founded Walkable Communities, Inc., and the Bicycle Federation of America. Burden has worked in more than 3,000 communities and led more than 4,000 walking audits throughout North America.
Walking audits have been happening for about 25 years now, though they are a skill and a field now coming into their pinnacle—the first official course on walkability audits was taught recently in Tucson to a mix of health, planning and engineering professionals. “A very big part of the walkability audit is to start to break down the walls between disciplines. It really helps open people’s eyes. It’s been a very powerful tool.”
A walking audit is an assessment of the walkability or pedestrian access of the built environment in a community. Burden created this tool to help communities understand how their environment encourages or discourages its residents from walking.
“America became something different. We lost our focus. We stopped designing cities for people,” explained Burden.
Dan Burden began to run walking audits about 25 years ago during his tenure at the Florida Department of Transportation. He realized that the engineers never went out and walked the streets they’d designed. “As we went out, we realized more and more how wrong the designs were.”
In his presentation, Burden shows photos of places that make you want to stay inside your house (or get in a car) rather than walk anywhere—deteriorating or no sidewalks, dangerous intersections built for cars that leave scarcely enough time for a healthy person to cross, acres of asphalt littered with bottles and trash with no green space in sight, and unlit alleyways that seem built to shelter crime.
“Over 80 percent of Americans want to be able to seamlessly switch modes of transportation,” said Burden. “That’s not what we’re funding.” In fact, he said, less than 1 percent of federal transportation dollars go toward supporting walking and biking infrastructure, and even those scarce funds are under threat.
Burden typically takes anywhere from one to 100 people with him on his walkability audits (though he recommends a group of 30 for less seasoned walkability gurus), inviting city planners, elected leaders, citizens, advocates, police officers, persons with disabilities and public health officials—anyone with a vested interest in creating a better community.
Before he brings in the whole group, though, Burden tries whenever he can to take a first pass through a neighborhood on his own to connect with residents, kids and local retailers to get their take about what’s working and not working in the community. One six-year-old told him all she wanted to do was to walk to school and play with her friends, but she was afraid to be outside by herself. The goal of the walkability audit is to find out what steps the community needs to take to get it to be a place its residents can be proud of and happy to live in.
The components of a walkability audit get very nitty gritty: the exact width of the “walk-and-talk zone” of a sidewalk (ideally four feet, leaving another two to four feet on either side as a buffer and a place for sidewalk “furniture” such as benches, bus stops and street lamps), the number and width of lanes for cars, the average speed of cars and average traffic volume on each block, and more. But what’s most critical is not the sidewalks or traffic patterns—it’s how the land is used, how connected are the hubs of activity, and how much open space there is. While sidewalks are important, they’re useless if they don’t lead somewhere people want to go, said Burden.
While the walkability audit of San Diego at the Smart Growth conference was quite literally, at times, a walk in the park on a beautiful, sunny day, that’s not always typical. Burden’s longest audit spanned 16 miles on a day when the temperature peaked at 120 degrees. Another audit could only be conducted 10 minutes at a time because the temperature dipped below a frigid –54 degrees. Yet on the 16-mile, 120-degree day, a woman in a wheelchair stuck it out for the entire audit to help show her community the challenges she faced daily in navigating a city that simply was not built for her.
What makes a community work? Five key aspects, said Burden:
There’s both an art and a science to walkability. The science involves a set of measures and ratings, described in detail in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Walking Audit tool, co-designed by Burden (and admittedly still “in beta”—more will likely be added to the tool as it is continually tested and refined).
Though health is not the primary goal of a walking audit, it is a critical outcome of a walkable community.
>>Read more NewPublicHealth coverage from the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference.
Town and city streets are an important part of the livability of communities, says Barbara McCann, Executive Director of the National Complete Streets Coalition and a presenter and moderator at this week’s New Partners for Smart Growth conference in San Diego. McCann says streets ought to be for everyone, whether young or old, motorist or bicyclist, walker or wheelchair user, bus rider or shopkeeper. “But too many of our streets are designed only for speeding cars, or worse, creeping traffic jams.”
But in communities across the country, a movement is growing to complete the streets and these communities are asking planners and engineers to build road networks that are safer, more livable, and welcoming to everyone.
Instituting a complete streets policy, according to McCann, ensures that transportation planners and engineers consistently design and operate the entire roadway with all users in mind. NewPublicHealth caught up with McCann in advance of this week’s conference.
NewPublicHealth: What is the scope of Complete Streets?
Barbara McCann: Complete Streets is about getting communities around the country to adopt policies to ensure that streets work for all users, and we have focused quite a lot on policy adoption. We’re seeing success in more half of the states and in about 300 local communities. And now we’re turning our attention towards implementation. What do communities need to do once they have a policy in order to actually make changes on the ground that creates a safer environment for walking and bicycling and taking the bus and other really active transportation?
NPH: How quickly have you seen changes recently?
Barbara McCann: Well, certainly in policy adoption it’s been going great guns. We’ve pretty much doubled the number of policies adopted every year for the past three years, from close to zero where we started this in 2006. So the policies are really, really spreading. Implementation of actually seeing change on the ground is a long haul process in most places because Complete Streets policy must make sure that every future project is done differently, and so that means that you’re not going to see an overnight change in your community, but it does mean that as investments move forward, every transportation investment will start to make a difference.
There are communities that have been doing this for a number of years and we do see improvements in facilities, we see public support or some of the innovations that are happening on the roadways really rising. We see safety improving and we see an increase in biking and walking in some of the places that have taken this approach.
NPH: What community would you hold up as a model for Complete Streets?
It’s a couch potato’s dream. In New York City, residents are getting exercise without even realizing it. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently released a report, “Health Benefits of Active Transportation in New York City,” that finds that most New Yorkers get more physical activity getting from place to place than they do from intentional exercise.
And, according to the report, the benefits abound:
- On average, people who walk or bike to work log more than an hour of active transportation time daily.
- In addition to reducing premature death, brisk walking or biking for a half hour every weekday reduces the risk of heart disease.
- Brisk walking for 20 to 30 minutes per day also can reduce diabetes risk by 30%.
New York City has made changes to its infrastructure to improve pedestrian safety, including widening street lanes, expanding sidewalks and adding countdown clocks at street crossings that let pedestrians know when the light is about to turn red.
But even communities where traveling by foot isn’t a part of everyday life are creating new walking opportunities. In Kansas City, Kansas, residents and volunteers are working with their surroundings to encourage walking as a leisure-time activity.
“Kansas, unlike New York, has very little public transportation infrastructure, causing most residents to use personal vehicles for movement between destinations,” says Caitlin McMurtry, an analyst with the Kansas Health Institute. As a result, says McMurtry, most people have fewer opportunities to exercise, “since walking to the garage is a lot closer than walking to the subway station.”
AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers have partnered with neighborhood development associations to revamp the physical environment and create walking clubs. Using practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and funding from the National Network of Public Health Institutes, the Rosedale Development Association and their volunteers are rehabilitating local walking trails by installing park benches, extra lighting, and trail markers.
Other resources for walkability information include:
Weigh in: Do you live in a walkable community?