Road Diets, Bicycle Trains, and Walking Audits Can Transform Your Neighborhood
By Spike Carlsen, award-winning author whose work has appeared in Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Make, Mother Earth News, Fine Homebuilding, and a number of other magazines. His most recent work A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Sewers, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About), was released in fall 2020.
Pick the happiest man you know, jack him up to six-foot-three, then slap on a day-glow shirt and a Sam Elliott mustache—and you’ll start getting a picture of Dan Burden. I’m standing on a sidewalk in Salinas, California, with Burden—a man with the awesome title of “Director of Innovation and Inspiration/Blue Zones” on his business card—participating in a walking audit. It’s my first audit, Burden’s 6,382nd. We’re not alone. Thirty other organizers, teachers, health-care managers, city employees, and members of grassroots movements are shuffling and striding too. The walking audit is part of a daylong planning “charrette” at Salinas City Hall, where Burden and a half dozen other members of the Blue Zones team are leading discussions about steps they can take to make Salinas a better place to, well, take steps in—and live in, work in, and bike around.
We near an intersection. Burden pauses, raises his pointer finger, and asks, “Why do all clocks move clockwise?” Silence. “Why are electric outlets fourteen inches off the floor?” Silence. “Why are all train tracks spaced the distance they are?” Silence. Burden explains that clock rotation is based on the movement of sundials, outlet height on the length of the hammer handles used by the electricians who install them, and train track spacing on the width of two horses’ asses—horses that pulled chariots twenty-five hundred years ago. What do sundials, hammers, and horses’ asses have to do with walking? “We get used to doing things traditional ways and keep on doing them even when they no longer make sense,” Burden says. Rather than making our roads faster, wider, and vehicle-centric, Burden thinks—no, KNOWS—we should make roads and sidewalks more people-centric. He breaks out a tape measure. The width of the sidewalk is forty-eight inches—because that’s tradition. “But if we’re walking side by side or I pass someone or there’s a kid on a bike or there’s a tree planted in the middle, we need five feet—better yet, six feet— to comfortably pass,” Burden explains.We get used to doing things traditional ways and keep on doing them even when they no longer make sense. —Dan Burden, Director of Innovation & Inspiration Click To Tweet
He waves his hand at the sterile four-lane road abutting the curb and says, “We need less of that,” then, tapping his foot on the sidewalk, “and more of this.” He points out pedestrians scurrying across an intersection to navigate sixty feet of roadway to safely cross to the other side. He then points out another intersection where peninsulas bulb out into the street to make the crossing a more pedestrian-friendly forty feet. “We need comfortable places for people to walk,” he says. “And it’s not just the sidewalk; it’s having enough cool design elements on the block that you want to walk there. You need trees, things to see, places to sit.”
A proponent of “street diets” that make roads narrower rather than wider, Burden isn’t railing against the internal combustion engine; he’s railing for good planning. Converting four-lane city streets to two-lane boulevards, and then using the newly created space to build bike lanes and walking paths, adding trees and replacing stop signs and lights with roundabouts, can make cities safer, flow better, friendlier, less congested, and more “people scaled.”
“Walking is the core to everything about designing a community,” Burden explains. He talks about active transportation. What happens when we make it easier and safer for people to bike, hike, and use public transportation? There’s increased physical activity, more social interaction, increased property values, less pollution—and the list goes on.Walking is the core to everything about designing a community. —Dan Burden, Director of Innovation & Inspiration Click To Tweet
The day before the charrette, a second-grader walking to nearby Sherwood Elementary School was struck by a car and seriously injured. If you’re a kid—or any pedestrian—and get hit by a vehicle traveling twenty miles per hour, you have a 90 percent chance of survival; but at forty miles per hour, you have a 90 percent chance of being killed. In 1969, nearly 90 percent of children living within a mile of school walked or biked there; today, that percentage has plummeted to 30 percent. After twenty years of declining pedestrian deaths, the fatality rate has soared over the past decade, climbing from 4,300 in 2009 to 6,590 in 2019. Likely factors include cell-phone use by distracted walkers and drivers, headphone “deafness,” increased numbers of people walking for exercise, and alcohol. In 2018, 33 percent of pedestrians killed in vehicular accidents had a blood-alcohol level exceeding 0.08. Solutions are discussed.
Bicycle Trains and Walking School Buses
One participant talks about a city where orange flags are stashed in bins at stoplights so people can wave them to increase their visibility in crosswalks. Burden politely bristles at the thought. “People shouldn’t have to wave flags or wear day-glow vests or run to get safely across a street,” he says. “We can do better than that.” Simple solutions include better lighting (three-quarters of pedestrian accidents happen at night), raising crosswalks six to twelve inches (so drivers can see pedestrians better and encounter a physical object to slow them down), and programming stoplights so pedestrians have a four- or five-second head start on cars to minimize “turning” accidents. The idea of the “walking school bus”—where adults accompany students on their walk to school, with the number of “bus occupants” growing in number and visibility block by block—is discussed. “Bicycle trains” work too. Safer routes equals more kids walking, and walking equals healthier kids, which means kids who become walking adults, adding up to healthier communities.
Walkable cities don’t happen overnight or by accident. Burden and team discuss the “life radius” approach to community-building—the concept that when parks, schools, stores, friends, libraries, and coffee shops are within a one- to two-mile radius of where we live, we’re more likely to walk or bike. Burden explains that fewer than 4 percent of people nationwide commute by walking or biking, but studies show that more than half the people would walk or bike if safe trails were provided.
Burden and his “built-environment” team are one branch of the larger Blue Zones initiative. The other two major branches are healthier eating and less tobacco use. The Blue Zones concept was born when Dan Buettner—after setting world records for distance biking, including a 15,500-mile trek from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina—set out to discover the places where people lived the longest. He found five communities— Okinawa (Japan), Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), and the Seventh-Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California—that were longevity “hotspots.” In partnership with National Geographic, Buettner and team studied the cultures, interviewed people, lived in the communities, and looked for commonalities to longevity.
Nine themes emerged, including being strongly engaged in family, social, and spiritual life; focusing on a plant-based diet; drinking a glass of red wine daily; and reducing stress. At the top of the heap sat daily physical activity. Aislinn Leonard of the Blue Zones explains: “The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work. They have jobs that require them to move or get up frequently. And they walk every single day.” And when we live in cities and have lifestyles that don’t require weeding gardens, pinning clothes on a line, hauling in fishnets, and other daily movement, walking can be the key to providing that vital daily physical activity.
By some accounts, walking is the No. 1 form of exercise in the United States—though this statistic is akin to the view that lawn mowing is the No. 1 “hobby.” Like breathing, walking is an integral part of living. It’s the first activity toddlers want to master and the last thing the elderly want to give up. We all use it to trek short distances. But what about going that extra mile? What’s in it for us? Health benefits. More studies have been done on the benefits of walking than any other form of exercise. The upside is indisputable.
Benefits are linked to three basic factors—intensity, duration, and frequency—but age, weight, terrain, stride length, overall fitness, weather, footwear, motivation, elevation, even socks, all affect the results. Nonetheless, walking can be clumped into four broad modes.
1. Restorative mode.
If you are recovering from an injury or illness, are chronically sedentary or overweight, or are just trying to reach baseline health, the benefits of walking are enormous. Doctors often prescribe walking because it requires no special equipment, training, or facility. Progress is easily measured by minutes or miles increased, and you reap the important side benefits of getting some sunshine and socializing. Robert Sallis, a sports doctor with Kaiser Permanente, states that walking is “the best thing we can do to improve our overall health and increase our longevity and functional years.”
2. Maintenance mode.
If you’re in reasonably good shape, walking at a two- to three-miles-an-hour clip (100 to 120 steps per minute) will help reduce stress, heighten social connectedness, maintain baseline health, and improve posture. If you’re relatively fit, it may not do much to build muscle, flexibility, or endurance, but the other benefits endure. Walking up stairs instead of using elevators, parking in a spot farther away from your destination, walking the dog, and taking short, brisk walks to break up the day all add up.
3. Calorie-burning mode.
At three to four miles per hour (135 steps per minute), you enter “exercise” mode. You increase aerobic capacity, and by burning eighty-five to one hundred calories per mile, you can shed pounds. “Telephone-pole walking,” where you alternate between fast and aggressive walking every few hundred feet, is a good way to move up to the next mode.
4. Muscle-building mode.
At more than four miles per hour (150 steps per minute), you’re into aerobic AND muscle building territory. You’ll burn (slightly) more calories per mile and shred—thus build—muscle. Squeezing your butt muscles every ten paces, carrying weights, and vigorously swinging your arms can increase results. Most people walk about four thousand steps in the course of a day. Some experts suggest that ten thousand steps per day (four to five miles) are necessary to maintain health; others suggest thirty minutes of brisk walking or other activity five days a week. Unless you lead an extremely active work or home life, reaching these goals often involves setting time aside to walk. It’s worth it.
Studies have shown that walking can produce a 20 percent reduction in the chance of having a stroke, a 30 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and a 40 percent lower risk of fracturing a hip. In women, there can be a nearly 20 percent reduction in the incidence of uterine and breast cancers.8 And the payoff pitch: walking—per the Blue Zones mantra—can add up to seven years to your life.
Walking: It really is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.Walking: It really is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. Click To Tweet
From the book A Walk Around the Block by Spike Carlsen. Copyright © 2020 by Spike Carlsen. Published on October 20, 2020 by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.