Everybody Has a Right to Walk

By Jay Walljasper, guest blogger

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt from America’s Walking Renaissance by Minneapolis-based writer Jay Walljasper is a strong reminder that pervasive racial and socio-economic inequity impacts even the most universal way of getting around. Clearly there’s work to do–here in the Twin Cities and across the country–to ensure access to a walkable community is not limited by race, income, age, or ability. We expect this to be a key topic at the 2017 National Walking Summit coming to Saint Paul next fall. TLC’s Executive Director Jessica Treat serves on the local host committee.

“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared Robert D. Bullard, credited as father of the environmental justice movement.

“Tell me your zip code and I can tell you how healthy you are,” said Bullard, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, in a keynote at the National Walking Summit in October 2015 in Washington, D.C. (The next National Walking Summit will be held in Saint Paul Sept. 13-15.)

“That should not be. … All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”

Jaw-dropping silence seized the room as Bullard showed a succession of maps illustrating how patterns of historic racial segregation and current poverty strongly correlate with low levels of walking and high levels of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

“Health disparities don’t just happen by accident,” he explained. They are the tragic legacy of racism and unequal economic opportunity. Being able to walk safely, Bullard pointed out, is literally a matter of life and death. “Research shows that walking can give you seven more years of life,” he said.

It is a stark fact that children, older Americans, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities are injured or killed more often while walking (or rolling, in the case of people using wheelchairs and motorized carts).

• People walking in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed by cars.

• African Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.

Many disadvantaged people now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, crumbling sidewalks, street crime, or a lack of stores and public places within walking distance. Poor conditions for walking among low-income households, people of color and some immigrant communities limit their access to jobs and education. One-third of all African Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.

“A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one,” says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. He notes that the average cost of owning and operating one car is about $8,500 a year.

In addition to traffic injuries, there’s a stigma in low-income communities that people on foot are “losers,” explains Yolanda Savage-Narva, director of health equity at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Growing up in an African American community in Mississippi, Savage-Narva recalls, “It wasn’t normal to walk. It was something that only really poor people did.”

How you travel looms large as an emotional issue in disadvantaged communities, according to Penalosa. “Walking is seen as a symbol of failure. And you can see why when you look at the places where many people are forced to walk—deteriorating infrastructure, dangerous intersections. It’s like we are telling these people every day that they are second-class citizens.”

Anita Hairston, associate director and transportation specialist at Policy Link, a national institute focused on social equity, offers another reason straight out of today’s headlines to explain why many African Americans and Latinos are wary about taking a stroll. “The issue of racial profiling is front and center. Who’s got the right to be on the streets? If a group of young black men are dressed casually, people think: Where is this gang going? What are they going to do? Not everyone has the same experience on the street.”

Despite all these roadblocks, people in disadvantaged communities still walk more than other Americans. “The fact is that we have twice as many low-income children who are walking or biking to school than those in affluent neighborhoods, even lacking the infrastructure to protect the children who walk and bicycle,” reports Keith Benjamin, Community Partnerships Manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

The good news is that the right to walk is becoming a major issue, as advocates for social justice, public health, neighborhood revitalization and other causes push for policies to make walking safer and easier in communities all across America. Diverse communities, from inner-city Washington, D.C., to the Central Valley of California, are pioneering new programs that make sure that everyone can enjoy the benefits of walking. As Ron Sims, an activist in the African American neighborhoods of Seattle and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, notes, “If you have parks, playgrounds, community gardens, and wide sidewalks, you have good health outcomes. If you have walkable communities, kids will do better in school … seniors will be healthier.”

Jay Walljasper—a Minneapolis-based consultant, writer and speaker on creating healthier, stronger communities—is author of  America’s Walking Renaissance, from which this story is excerpted. You can download it on a free PDF here.

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