Group Seeks Pedestrian-Friendly Roads

Walking, biking and other forms of physical activity are central to a healthy life, and for many, the only way of getting from here to there. The problem is that our thoroughfares are often designed for cars and traffic flow. In 15 years, they've killed more than 70,000 people. Health groups and others have been pushing for a more walkable, bikeable world and states are realizing things need to change.

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If you do a lot of walking, you should be careful if you're on the streets of Florida. The cities in that state top the list of the most dangerous for pedestrians, including Orlando, Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville. At the other end of the list, the safest cities for pedestrians include Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis-St Paul. These cities were ranked by a group called Transportation for America, based on federal and state records. This group is urging government officials to keep pedestrians in mind as they plan new roads and fix the old ones. NPRs Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: Each year, about 5,000 people lose their lives walking along roads in the United States. Most of the people who were hit were walking near roads like this one. Its about 30 minutes outside Washington, in an area of Fairfax County, Virginia called Hybla Valley.

Its a surface street. Its six lanes of fast moving, two-way traffic. There are restaurants and motels and convenience stores on either side. Behind those are apartments and homes, and the residents often take a short cut right across the six lanes to catch a bus. Barbara McCann of the National Coalition for Complete Streets, says this doesnt really encourage more people to use buses.

Ms. BARBARA MCCANN (National Complete´┐ŻStreets´┐ŻCoalition): We will see people standing on the side of the road next to a pole in the grass with no protection, no crossing. Theyve had to dash across a uncontrolled intersection to get to the bus. And its something that people in their cars look at and say, Im not going to do that.

WILSON: But not everyone has a choice about it.

Ms. CARINA POWER: I do have a car. Its just, you know, not working properly and I don't have the money to pay for it right now. Just getting across this street is a little dangerous.

WILSON: Twenty-four-year-old Carina Power has just made a mad dash across the six lanes.

Ms. POWER: Theres a turning lane that can turn anytime as long as its clear. So theres always cars coming from that way. And then the light can change at anytime up here, so there are cars coming that way. So you have to wait for the cars to stop, or wait for a chance for you to get across the street. And quite often, cars have had to stop just to let me cross, which is nice but its also dangerous, because, you know, if they decide not to stop Im either standing in the middle of the street or Im hit.

WILSON: This slightly mad scene in Hybla Valley is typical of suburban strips throughout the country that were built just after World War II. Virginias Assistant Secretary of Transportation, Nicholas Donohue, says these areas were not as developed then.

Secretary NICHOLAS DONOHUE (Virginia Department of Transportation): They were built in an area where there really wasnt much development. And for better or worse the thought was made that people wouldnt really be walking there in the future. And as the areas, particularly northern Virginia and other parts of the state, have started to become more suburban and urban, we realized thats not the right way to go about this.

WILSON: Since 2004, he says, state officials decided all new transportation projects have to plan for pedestrians and bicyclists. Dr. Linda Degutis, an associate professor at Yale University, says health officials have also played a key role in pushing for these changes and not just to prevent accidents.

Dr. LINDA DEGUTIS (Yale University): Weve seen a tremendous decline in walking and physical activity as weve built more and more roads that are really hostile and unsafe for pedestrians. Degutis was speaking for the American Public Health Association, which says this has contributed to the increase in chronic disease conditions, like heart disease, diabetes and obesity - all of which are helped by exercise and walking.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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