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Bringing a city to the sidewalk

Walk much? While it might not be high on many people's lists of preferred exercise - it's just something they do to get from Point A to Point B - health officials increasingly are recognizing its value to our well-being.

Nick Rogers is the Clean Air Council's sustainable transportation program director.
Nick Rogers is the Clean Air Council's sustainable transportation program director.Read more

Walk much?

While it might not be high on many people's lists of preferred exercise - it's just something they do to get from Point A to Point B - health officials increasingly are recognizing its value to our well-being.

A year ago, the U.S. surgeon general issued a national "call to action" to promote walking and make our communities more walkable. He said it made sense to promote walking as a public-health strategy because of the substantial health benefits regular, brisk walks can bring. They include reducing the risk of chronic diseases - think cancer and heart disease. Walking, along with other physical activities, increases the likelihood of healthy aging. It can support mental health. Plus, walking doesn't require special skills - we all learned to do it as infants - or expensive special equipment.

One of Philadelphia's pedestrian advocacy groups is Feet First Philly, a program of the Clean Air Council. Nick Rogers, the council's sustainable transportation program director, recently spoke to us about it.

Tell us about Feet First Philly.
There are two focuses: One is to generally promote walking. The other is to make Philadelphia a better walking environment.

Less than half the people in the country get their federally recommended amount of exercise - 150 minutes a week. Walking is a great tool to address that. Anyone can do it. Especially for someone who is older, or recovering from an injury, or who doesn't have the means to buy a gym membership, walking is a great way to get exercise.

This is something people can do on their lunch break. They can go out with a group of friends. I'm a cyclist, and in the winter it takes me 20 minutes just to get ready. It's not the same for walkers. You don't need to get ready to go for a walk. You can just go for a walk.

Is Philadelphia a good place for walking?
Philadelphia is a great place for walking. We are ranked the fourth highest among large cities for walkability, according to Walk Score, a website that helps people find walkable places to live. Our neighborhoods are geographically close to one another. Within our neighborhoods, we have a good mix of job centers and parks and coffee shops. There are a lot of different things you can do within a short walk.

But we do have challenges. Our major streets are designed mainly for cars. Getting across Broad and Market Streets can be difficult. Roosevelt Boulevard is one of the most dangerous in the country in terms of pedestrian deaths from vehicle crashes. The city has received a $2.5 million federal grant to examine how to address it.

And we're all aware of the dreaded construction zones. A lot of times, the route past a site isn't signed properly. You don't know ahead of time that you are going to be blocked in the middle of the sidewalk. At that point, most people don't turn around and walk back to the corner, where it's safe to cross. They cross in the middle of the block, putting themselves at unnecessary risk.

In 2014, the last year for which statistics are available, there were more than 10,000 vehicle crashes in Philadelphia. There were 97 deaths, and 38 were pedestrians - four out of 10. So that is very much a public-health issue.

Last month, our group and a number of others that are pretty diverse, including the Bicycle Coalition, created a Vision Zero Alliance. The goal is to dramatically reduce the number and severity of traffic crashes, with a long-term goal of eliminating all traffic deaths.

What are some Vision Zero ideas?
In many other cities that have adopted Vision Zero, one of the biggest priorities is automated speed enforcement - making it easier to catch speeders by the use of cameras.

We also want to enforce the pedestrian right-of-way in the crosswalk. According to Feet First Philly's survey of pedestrians in Philadelphia, that's one of the top issues. Some places are addressing this by timing the traffic lights so that pedestrians get a head start on the cars, establishing themselves first in the intersection. Other places have signals that keep all the cars stopped and allow pedestrians only to cross.

We also want to make sure that we have as few of these complete construction blockages as possible. Before it can happen, the project engineer has to submit an explanation of why that's necessary, along with the permit application. That explanation is never made public, and we'd like to see that change. We'd also like to see an aggressive fee schedule that makes it unattractive to have a blockage. A construction company should find a safe way to get people past, rather than just making them stop.

Does having a city with more walkers also affect the health of non-walkers?
We really see the public-health benefits as it relates to climate change and global warming. Just this year, the transportation sector, which is led by cars, became the number-one sector in the nation contributing to greenhouse gases. That has profound health effects.

But there's good news. Nearly half of all vehicle trips in metro areas like Philadelphia are three miles or less. And 28 percent are one mile or less. Many of these trips can be made by walking.

Fewer car trips means less congestion, and the biggest benefit for public health related to that is less smog. Cars burn dirtier when they are stuck in congestion. Smog is a lung irritant that can aggravate lung diseases such as asthma. Smog makes it difficult for people to breathe deeply and vigorously. It causes inflamed airways. It has cardiovascular effects and can even cause COPD. The more cars we can get off the road, the healthier Philadelphia is going to be for everyone.

How can people get involved?
Go to our website, There's a lot of information there. We have started a photo gallery of "the good, the bad, and the if-only," and we want people to post on it.

Our website also has a database of public walks and walking groups in the city and around the region. We have maps that can be used as a resource for people who are just getting out there. Some people are shaky about where to go - seniors, someone recovering from an injury, someone suffering from chronic disease - but they are the ones who might need to get out there the most.