The Challenge of Bringing Walkability to America's 99 Percent

Kaid Benfield proposes not only more walkable neighborhoods in the United States, where a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle every 7 minutes, but also more walking to reverse the country's alarming obesity trend.
January 17, 2013, 9am PST | Jessica Hsu
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In Woodbridge, Virginia, U.S. Route 1 looks like just another stretch of road in the country, says Benfield, but "[w]hat you don't see are any but the crudest accommodations for walking." The lack of crosswalks, sidewalks and traffic signals makes this corridor especially dangerous for pedestrians, and those who are hit by drivers are found at fault for "interfering with traffic" under Virginia law. Jay Mallin's Interfering with Traffic documents two men hit by vehicles while trying to cross the road on separate incidents near Route 1. They were charged for interfering with traffic, whereas the drivers were not charged at all. An even worse situation happened in Atlanta in 2011, where a single mother was convicted of homicide after her four-year-old son was killed by a driver under the influence.

"Even if you're not killed or injured, you can't help but find much of suburban American inhospitable to walking," laments Benfield. 13 percent of American children walked to school in 2006, compared to 60 percent in 1973. Laguna Beach refused to participate in International Walk to School Day, and in Montgomery County, Maryland, the local Department of Transportation denied parents' request for a crosswalk because "the safest way is to have them bused to school." Benfield asks, "If walking is no longer safe and convenient in relatively upscale Saratoga Springs and Laguna Beach, how are we going to fix a suburbanizing place whose residents may struggle to afford cars and arguably are even more in need of good alternatives? "

Jeff Speck's Walkable City offers a good start with his "ten steps of walkability" for urban environments, but many areas like the U.S. Route 1 in Woodbridge "are not the kind of prosperous communities where change can occur rapidly and with the degree of investment necessary to do it right." Although an approach still needs to be developed for these places, says Benfield, its imperative that Americans start walking more to reduce obesity and associated risks like heart disease, diabetes and premature death.

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Published on Wednesday, January 16, 2013 in NRDC Switchboard
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