Donna called at 5pm with a last-minute request, “Can you give me a lift to Bedford? I promised to have dinner with my parents and my car’s in the shop.”
“Sure” I said, not realizing that a 10-mile drive during rush hour takes 45 minutes each way.
Not only was Donna’s car in the shop; husband Glen was driving his car home from a business trip; and daughter Amy needed a car to move into her new dorm. That’s right, three cars in a three-person household. Welcome to the burbs!
Living in Acton, Massachusetts, a small town 25 miles west of Boston, means driving—everywhere. The mass transit commuter rail takes us to Boston, but not Bedford or Burlington. The last census revealed that Acton residents own 1.8 cars per household. We have to. Nothing is within safe walking distance. Not even the local market. We even have to drive to the gym.
In our community, suburban living means limited public transportation, limited walkability for health and wellness, and limited socialization because of isolation. A total dependence on cars.
I blame Ike.
Fifty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act that created a nation dependent on automobiles. To this day, our train and bus infrastructure is weak, our sidewalks and bike paths are minimal, and we remain slaves to the auto. At what cost? Our health and wellness.
A recent study from the American College of Sports Medicine showed that Americans walk less than their counterparts in Switzerland, Australia and Japan. Their results conclude that “Low levels of physical activity are contributing to the high prevalence of adult obesity in the United States.” A subsequent story from Slate Magazine reveals “How We Got Off the Pedestrian Path” in The Crisis in American Walking. “Walking has been engineered out of existence,” cites Tom Vanderbilt, mainly because of the car.
The chart below comes from the American Public Health Association (APHA) website which compares Americans’ health with other high-income nations.
In life expectancy, we rank 34th!
After 50 years of highway driving, do we even know how much walking would put us on the right path? The New York Times revisits “how many steps a day we should really walk?” Given the state of American health, the common benchmark of 10,000 steps per day may be too low. At 2,000 steps per mile; 10,000 steps or five miles per day might not be enough. And we are missing a prime component—infrastructure. Sidewalks and bike paths fell by the wayside when the car became king, and our health has suffered from it.
“What if we labeled unwalkable neighborhoods like we do cigarettes?” suggests Smart Growth America, a website dedicated to promoting walking and physical activity as a built-in feature of communities.
This week, the Surgeon General of the United States answered the call by kicking off a campaign called, Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. The Step It Up! website includes additional resources such as tips on How to Start a Walking Program and an easy way to add a little music to our walks with the Surgeon General’s Walking Playlist on Pandora.
With over 47,000 miles of interstate highways connecting car-centric communities, how do we reverse Ike’s unintended consequence of an unhealthy nation? Let’s tell Congress to listen to the Surgeon General by making walkable communities a priority in the next transportation bill and just keep walking!
While waiting for Congress to act, Donna and I will probably still be sitting in traffic. Maybe we could walk there faster!
Writer: Janice M. Ward
Editor: Ann Sussman