WASHINGTON — It was a sunny Sunday in early June, and Annette Calderon was prepared for a stroll. She had sneakers on her feet, shades over her eyes, an iced tea in her hand and a Fitbit activity tracker around her wrist. The only thing the 36-year-old was missing? A sidewalk.
Tysons Corner, Virginia, isn’t built with pedestrians in mind. But that wasn’t going to stop Calderon, her husband and a posse of other area residents participating in Tysons First Mile Walk to highlight how inhospitable the area is for anyone on foot.
After stints in the pedestrian paradises of Manhattan, San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif., Calderon can’t help but feel confined in Tysons. In the four months since the couple moved here, she has seen her weekly step count plummet from 140,000 to 95,000 — mostly because she has nowhere to go. But Tysons appears to be on the verge of change. Fairfax County has been cooking up a buffet of ways to transform the nation’s 12th-largest employment center into somewhere people can walk, run and bike as well as work.
The Tysons Comprehensive Plan, adopted by the county’s Board of Supervisors in 2010, calls for an entirely new landscape by 2050. It envisions a “greenway” of connected trails anchored by a central park, and dotted with other places to play. “Complete streets,” featuring bike lanes and tree-lined sidewalks, will form an easy-to-navigate grid.
“It’s taken much too long,” says Bruce Wright, the chairman of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling, who has been riding in the region since 1979, “but it’s coming.”
And it’s coming to a lot of places. Nationwide, government leaders are reconsidering decades-old policies that have prioritized car traffic. Instead of making streets fast, they want to make them welcoming — to kids on tricycles, seniors with canes and everyone in between.
The movement is inspired, in part, by Americans’ ever-expanding waistlines. In the fight against obesity, public health experts are pushing more physical activity, and they hope to get some help from the redesign of communities.
The first step — and the second, and so on — is obvious to Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a nonprofit organization that promotes “the forgotten form of transportation.”
“Walking is a wonder drug,” he says, noting that regular doses can burn calories, strengthen bones, improve attitudes, relieve stress and reduce the risk of a whole lot of unwanted diagnoses.
But there are obstacles along this path. One of the biggies, Bricker says, is a well-founded fear of accidents. More than 47,000 people were killed and 676,000 were injured while walking in the United States between 2003 and 2012, according to a report by the National Complete Streets Coalition called “Dangerous by Design 2014.” Most of those injured were older adults, people of color and children.
Many cities and towns offer pedestrian facilities that simply aren’t adequate, says Stefanie Seskin, deputy director of the coalition. “They might be, by definition, ‘safe,’ if you wait and go out of your way,” she explains, but when someone wants to go directly from a bus stop to an apartment building right across the street, it’s not reasonable to expect that person to trek half a mile in each direction to reach a crosswalk. Communities need to strive to make walking not merely possible, but comfortable and convenient, she says.
Fewer places in this country are safer for walking than New York — based on the report’s “pedestrian danger index,” it’s ranked 48th out of 51 large metro areas. But that won’t cut it for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is pushing to emulate a Swedish policy called “Vision Zero.” Through a series of new regulations, such as slower speed limits and increased penalties for moving violations, the goal is to have no traffic fatalities by 2024.
Seskin says other cities have copied New York before: For example, Times Square’s transformation into a pedestrian plaza five years ago has spawned many smaller-scale imitators. And the Big Apple’s protected bike lanes have served as inspiration for those now popular in other cities.
One of the nation’s newest cycle tracks just opened in Memphis, Tennessee. Now, only two of the four lanes on its Riverside Drive allow cars, says bicycle/pedestrian coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz, who said he hopes such projects will boost the city’s activity level along with its reputation. In the American College of Sports Medicine’s just-released Fit City Index, it ended up dead last. “No one says, ‘I’d love to live in the most unhealthy city in America,’ “ he adds. If he can persuade his neighbors to swap their barbecue for bikes, he reasons, Memphis might be able to turn those numbers around.
To get more folks riding, dozens of American cities have started bike-share programs. The impact has been immediate, says Nicole Freedman, director of Boston Bikes. Hubway, her city’s program, has expanded its reach further by providing $5 annual memberships to low-income residents.
“Equity is the key goal here,” says Freedman, noting that a new partnership is underway with Boston Medical Center, which treats a large underserved population. Physicians there are being encouraged to prescribe bike riding to patients, who can go directly from an appointment to signing up for Hubway.
“If you tell people to do 10 push-ups a day, it usually doesn’t happen. We’re trying to find ways to get them to exercise that aren’t so much like work,” says Alan Meyers, a pediatrician who’s promoting the effort among his colleagues at the hospital. “The hope is that if a person starts using it, they’ll like it so much that it’ll make a change in daily habits.”
That pretty much sums up the mission of the “active transportation” movement, which encompasses all of these walkability and bikeability efforts. And it continues to grow in major cities, small towns and even rural areas, Seskin says.
Good ideas are out there — even when sidewalks aren’t.