Part of our continuing series on walking equity By Jay Walljasper.

There is mounting evidence that a daily walk helps prevent a host of serious diseases and that evidence is beginning to influence debates about health care, community vitality, poverty, race and opportunity.

“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared Robert A. Bullard, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, in a keynote at the Second National Walking Summit held this past fall in Washington, D.C.

“The pursuit of health is also about justice,” emphasized US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. It’s about making sure “everyone in America has a good shot at being healthy.”

The Surgeon General’s recent Call to Action on Walking and Walkable Communities highlights the fact that, “an average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity—such as brisk walking—can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes” as well as other debilitating chronic diseases.

“Tell me your zip code and I can tell you how healthy you are,” Bullard said.  “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 historic segregation and current poverty strongly correlate with low levels of walking and childhood opportunity as well as with 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.

Pedestrian Road Network Density and Predominant Race/Ethnicity

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Ron Sims, who sponsored some of the first research identifying zip codes as a key determinant of health while chief executive of King County, Washington, noted. “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.”

Drawing on his experience as an activist in African-American neighborhoods of Seattle as well as a former Deputy US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he mapped out a blueprint for healthy communities: new or improved sidewalks, better lighting, access to water and greenspace, a place for kids to play around, a place for aging adults and senior citizens to feel they belong.

“You have no idea how powerful you are,” Sims said to the hundreds of walking activists in the room. “I can’t overstate that you are a movement that can ensure this country achieves its great dreams.”

Equal access to good health was a call resounding throughout the 3-day Walking Summit , hosted by America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative  and presented by Kaiser Permanente, an integrated health care delivery system, along with two dozen co-sponsors spanning the health care, philanthropy, business, non-profit and transportation fields.

More than 520 people from 44 states participated in the Summit, a crowd that was more racially and regionally diverse and 30 percent larger than the first National Walking Summit in 2013. Over 220 received scholarships to make the event more accessible to people with limited resources.

“All of us with divergent missions—from health care to social justice to land trusts to neighborhood revitalization—have a convergent strategy to get more people out walking and create safe places to walk everywhere,” noted Kaiser Permanente vice-president Tyler Norris.

More than 70 workshops and panel discussions addressed the overarching goal of how to make sure everyone has access to a safe, comfortable, convenient place to walk.  This includes disabled people, who may “walk” by rolling.

Speaker after speaker pointed to the stark inequality that still exists on the streets and sidewalks of America. The young, the old, the poor, people of color and people with disabilities are injured or killed more often while walking.

  • 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.
  • The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly for people 45 and over, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Pedestrian Motor Vehicle Crash Mortality and Predominant Race/Ethnicity

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Professor Bullard noted a study showing that motorists wait longer to yield to a person of color walking on the street than to a white person, a situation he termed “racial bias in the crosswalk.” Meanwhile racial profiling by both police and the public pose another obstacle to walking for people of color, as witnessed by the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

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.

Read Jay Walljasper’s previous walking equity series and check back soon for Make Streets Safer and More Accessible for Poor, People of Color, Disabled and Kids.

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a writer, speaker and consultant on making communities better places to live for everyone. He is the Urban-Writer-in-Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

photo credit: North Charleston