How will Northeast Ohio
learn to be 'ProBike and ProWalk'?
Public health professionals around the country are actively seeking ways to get Americans biking and walking to improve quality of life and turn the tide on the ongoing battle with obesity and related diseases. That's the message The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation delivered to 500 transportation professionals and advocates including EcoCity Cleveland's bike guru Ryan McKenzieat the recent ProBike/ProWalk conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The foundation and the University of North Carolina School of Public Health fund a national program, "Active living by design", that calls for ways to increase physical activity through community design. It also funds new partnerships between public health professionals and pedestrian and bike advocates to encourage walking and biking as a way of meeting daily transit and exercise needs.
"There's a rising awareness that we need to create environments that 'seduce the pedestrian,'" McKenzie says. "The top public health threat for Americansmore than car crashes and bad dietis the fact that we have engineered physical activity out of our lives."
The foundation notes sobering statistics, such as the average American walks less than 300 yards a day and less than 20 percent of children are getting to school under their own power. At the same time, children are engaging in less physical play and some districts are cutting gym classesall leading to historically high obesity levels.
Solutions are available through urban design that improves the connections between everyday places such as school, work, home and shopping centers. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is also partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote urban design that seeks more active lifestyles for Americans.
Some of the areas of improvement that can make bicycling and walking more attractive and viable include:
Representatives at the conference from cities such as Chicago, Seattle and Phoenix reported that their municipal governments invested federal transportation revenues from the Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) set aside program to fund projects that improve walkability and bike transit. Chicago paid for 8,000 bike racks, Seattle has the mentorship and education Bike Buddy program and Phoenix has a pedestrian design assistance program (to develop pedestrian accessibility in capital projects) all from CMAQ funds. In Chicago, CMAQ funds pay for two staff members of the nonprofit Chicagoland Bicycle Federation to work full time at the city's planning commission on bike and pedestrian accessibility issues.
In Northeast Ohio, 80 percent of the $80 million in CMAQ funds available during the last decade were spent on traffic signal synchronization projects (largely in suburban areas that are experiencing relatively light traffic). The rest was spent on new buses. Most of the decision making on CMAQ funds was made by the Ohio Department of Transportation and, to a lesser degree, by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), Northeast Ohio's metropolitan planning organization that approves federal funds for transportation projects.
NOACA recently reported that it has calculated a $103 million surplus in CMAQ funds for the next ten years. NOACA also revealed it had no policy of how the CMAQ funds should be spent, no process for evaluation of proposals, but that "it may be beneficial...to develop a policy regarding how these funds might best be used in the future."
It may be incumbent upon policymakers to consider two points that help set the basis for using CMAQ funds for more bike and pedestrian accessibility projects for which the funds qualify.
First, livability issues are widely recognized as a way to stem the tide of brain drain in Cleveland. Second, new technology has allowed automakers like Honda and Toyota to produce cars that have nearly zero emissions. The real concern for air quality is total car trips (cold starts)a greater source of emissions than a few miles traveled across town in the car. The policy implications should be to reduce total car trips and increase healthier lifestyles by offering viable solutions for multiple modes of transportation including biking and walking.
There's a rising awareness that we need to create environments that "seduce the pedestrian." The top public health threat for Americansmore than car crashes and bad dietis the fact that we have engineered physical activity out of our lives.