Residents Leave Their Cars Behind in Oxford, Miss.

    • November 22, 2011

Oxford, Miss., is helping residents lead more active lives by making it easier for them to get around town without a car.

In the past two years, new sidewalks, medians and raised crosswalks have been created. Sidewalks have been linked to a network of bicycle and pedestrian paths. The local university has started a free bicycle-lending program, while the city has added bike racks to its buses. And a program called “Walking Wednesdays” has made it easier for children to walk to school at least once a week.

“It’s all coming together,” says longtime Oxford resident and community health advocate Jeffrey Hallam, who directs the Center for Health Behavior Research at The University of Mississippi. “We’re moving quickly and decisively as a community to improve our ability to get around without driving.”

Home to approximately 19,000 permanent residents and 12,000 university students, “Oxford is a traditional Southern town,” Hallam says. “The square is a thriving place to be and a potential hub for increased physical activity. But when people drive into town, is there a place they can park and then walk to do their shopping and other errands? Can they unload a bicycle and get around that way?”

Unfortunately, Oxford is traditional in other ways, too. It is the county seat for Lafayette County in north-central Mississippi, where the adult obesity rate is 31 percent. Southern states have the highest obesity prevalence in the country, and Mississippi tops the list. A third of adults and more than a fifth of youths there are obese.

So encouraging daily physical activity is one of Oxford’s top policy priorities.

Mike Dupper has lived in Oxford for more than 30 years. A seasoned runner, he’s often up before the sun to beat the traffic and, during summer months, triple-digit temperatures. Although the city recently passed a “three-foot rule” requiring vehicles to give walkers, joggers and cyclists at least three feet of space on the roadway, “sometimes it’s like cars almost aim for you,” Dupper says.

He appreciates the increased safety from infrastructure changes—from a new off-road trail built on former train tracks to a widened shoulder along Molly Bar Road. “It’s a steep hill near campus, which runners love, but you used to put yourself at risk sharing that road with cars,” he says. “Now there are eight-foot shoulders along both sides, wide enough to run three or four abreast.”

The Oxford public school district is also taking steps—literally. On Walking Wednesdays, children can be dropped off by their parents at designated lots and then walk the rest of the way to school, accompanied by adult volunteers. Although the program attracts mostly younger children, an increasing number of middle school students are in the crowd. Teachers report that those who participate are more alert and attentive in the classroom.

Oxford’s experience could instruct other small communities. “Until now,” Hallam explains, “most research on obesity has focused on conditions in urban and suburban settings that are too different from rural settings to use or simply tweak.” In urban and suburban areas, for example, most adolescents’ physical activity begins to decrease once they can drive, because they are then less likely to walk or bike to school. In rural areas, he notes, the opposite is true. “Once children turn 16, they often get more exercise since they’re no longer dependent on parents to drive them to recreational activities—the school gym or baseball field, a community park or a pool.”

Oxford’s efforts have received support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) through its Active Living Research program, which supports research that examines how environments and policies influence physical activity for children and their families, especially in communities where resources are few and rates of obesity are high, to help reverse the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Hallam worked with Active Living Research to develop a set of easy-to-use tools designed to help rural communities determine how activity-friendly their particular environments are. These Rural Active Living Assessment (RALA) tools include the Town-Wide Assessment, which looks at general characteristics and recreational amenities; the Program and Policy Assessment, which reviews government and school policies related to physical activity; and the Street-Segment Assessment, which collects information specific to thoroughfares, such as traffic, surrounding land use and walkability. Seven communities in Mississippi, Alabama, California, Kentucky and Maine were involved in creating and testing the RALA tools.

Oxford’s participation “stimulated fresh conversation and strengthened collaborative efforts between the university and the community, a lot of it focused on bike and walking pathways,” Hallam says. “It’s all becoming much more integrated.”

In fact, results from the RALA study helped Oxford secure funding from the state transportation department through the Safe Routes to School program; the money paid for improvements to sidewalks, crosswalks and bicycle and pedestrian paths. When the city later received $500,000 in federal funds, Oxford’s Board of Alderman decided to apply the entire amount to further improve and expand those paths.