Safe Places to Walk

This is a guest post by America Walks board co-vice president Kevin Mills. Kevin Mills is Senior Vice President of Policy at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. He has served on the America Walks Board of Directors since 2010, and as Co-Chair of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative since 2013.  

America Walks Board members are passionate about the organization for many reasons, but topping many of our lists is the conviction that having safe and convenient places to walk is fundamental to high quality of life. When I bought my house many years ago, it took several false starts before I convinced my real estate agent that I would only buy somewhere where my family and I could easily walk to the subway, stores and restaurants, schools and more. By now many agents have caught on that walkability is in high demand.

Even Cookie, a Burmese Mountain dog, appreciates a walkable community

Distance to destinations was clearly a factor in choosing my neighborhood, but also critical were the continuous sidewalks and street design that enabled me to walk without fear of being run over by a car. In my neighborhood, speed humps calm traffic to a safe speed and I can simply push a button to stop traffic to cross our busy main street without feeling like I’m playing ‘Frogger’. Our sidewalks are a social place where neighbors meet and catch up, often while walking our dogs, and they teem with commuters and young kids walking to school.

America Walks is enabling local advocates across the country to develop walkable communities like mine that are safe and desirable. Raising awareness of best practices, building capacity of local organizations to lead and promoting policies that enable safe walking routes are among the critical roles the organization plays.

The need and the opportunities for these services have never been greater. Increases in serious injuries and fatalities among pedestrians in recent years have been disturbing. According to the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA), the number of pedestrian fatalities increased 27% between 2007 and 2016 while, at the same time, all other traffic deaths declined by 14%. GHSA recently estimated that nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes nationwide in 2017, virtually unchanged from 2016.

Kevin’s neighborhood

In response to this carnage, more and more communities are investing in infrastructure and policies to put people first. Some cities have adopted Vision Zero policies to signal that complacency is no longer an option. In the wake of a milestone report from the National Traffic Safety Board— documenting that speed is a key determinant of whether a pedestrian will die if struck—people are increasingly questioning the traditional focus of traffic engineers on moving vehicles faster. Further, urban, suburban and rural communities are demanding connected multi-use trail networks that enable people of all ages and abilities to walk or roll without the stress and risks of having to contend with motor vehicles.

Walking advocacy is evolving as cities change around us. Emerging technologies are altering the ways people communicate and move around. Ride sharing services in congested areas can increase conflicts at the curb, but also create opportunities to repurpose valuable street space by reducing parking demand. Dockless bike sharing services are making bicycling more accessible, but posing issues for people on foot or in wheelchairs when parked in the right-of-way. And, into the future, the simple act of walking could face new challenges from automated vehicles, drones and robots. America Walks is tracking and responding to this dynamic environment in which we work.

The bottom line is that streets, sidewalks and trails are valuable public spaces that should be managed for the benefit, including safe passage, of all people. America Walks’ crucial calling is to enable community leaders to design their neighborhoods to be safe and convenient for people who walk or roll, regardless of income, race, gender or age.