By Jay Walljasper

The new focus on walking marks a dramatic turnaround from a century of steep decline in foot traffic. Beginning in the 1920s, new communities were designed and old neighborhoods reshaped to accommodate the convenience of drivers over the safety of people on the street. Pedestrian fatalities mounted during that decade, with children under nine making up 60 percent of the death toll. These auto-centric trends escalated dramatically after World War II, when walking was deemed archaic and sidewalks stripped out of urban design blueprints.

By the late 1950s, traveling by foot was downright dangerous and inhospitable in many places across the country. The buoyant streetlife that once enlivened towns and cities withered. Being seen walking stood as a sign you were a loser. Kids, older people, the disabled, the poor and others unable to own or operate a car came to feel they lived under house arrest—unable to go anywhere without asking someone for a ride.

About this time concern erupted over the declining physical fitness of Americans, especially children who ranked poorly on exercise tests compared to counterparts in other countries. President Dwight Eisenhower launched the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and John F. Kennedy named star University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson as a special consultant encouraging Americans to stay in shape. But walking continued to sink through the ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1969, more than 40 percent of US schoolkids still walked or biked to school, by 2001 it was down to 13 percent.  Walking was fading as a way of life, even as running, backpacking and biking became popular activities.

Finding the Path Back

 

America’s walking’s revival began as a tag-along to the bicycle boom. Since people on bikes and on foot were both seeking protection from speeding traffic, it was a natural fit.

In 1980, the Bicycle Federation of America debuted its semi-annual conference Pro-Bike, and a few years later added “Pro-Walk” to the name, eventually changing their name to the National Center for Bicycling and Walking. And in 1986, the Rails to Trails Conservancy was born with the idea of turning abandoned railroad lines across the countryside into trails, which drew walkers as well as bikers.

In 1991, Rails to Trail co-founder David Burwell, a Washington lawyer, proposed an outrageous idea to New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar: devote a tiny portion of the federal transportation budget to biking and walking improvements. They agreed, and proposed a $1 billion sliver over five years on top of more than $100 billion for roads in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which George H.W. Bush signed. For the first time in history, state and local communities could find federal funding for important bike and walk projects, as they had been able to do for auto-oriented projects since 1916.

It soon became clear there was great demand for street safety and trail projects in all 50 states. When lobbyists for highway contractors tried to eliminate designated bike and pedestrian funding when the transportation bill was renewed in 1997, they were soundly defeated as bike and walking activists mobilized citizens to contact their Congress members and newspapers across the country editorialized in favor of keeping the funding based on success stories in their home communities.

The 1990s saw advocacy groups specializing in walking issues pop up—including Walk Boston, Walk San Diego, Walk Austin, Oregon Walks, PEDS in Atlanta, and Feet First in Seattle. In 1996, they joined forces to help create the America Walks, a national coalition which today numbers more than 700 organizations involved in promoting walking as transportation, recreation and exercise. Meanwhile, Dan Burden (former Florida Bicycle-Pedestrian Coordinator) and Mark Fenton (former member of the US racewalking team and host of the PBS series “America’s Walking”) pioneered the field of walkability consulting, advising communities on becoming better places to walk. Design and planning firms also emerged to carry out ambitious pedestrian projects, such as Alta Planning + Design and Toole Design Group.

First Steps of the Walking Movement

The walking movement as we know it today came together at a gathering after the 2012 Pro-Bike Pro-Walk Pro-Place conference in Long Beach. It was convened by Kaiser Permanente’s Tyler Norris (whose colorful background as a community health activist includes helping open the 670-mile Abraham Path walking trail through the Middle East)and the late Deb Hubsmith (a Northern California bike activist who branched out into walking issues after founding the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership to help kids bike and walk). Among those on hand were Kevin Mills of Rails to Trails Conservancy, Scott Bricker of America Walks, Jeff Miller of the Alliance for Biking and Walking, and Joan Dorn and Ken Rose from the CDC.

The focus of the discussion was creating the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, which sought to connect influential organizations in health care, transportation, real estate, recreation, business, social justice, environmental sustainability and others fields. “We cooked up a big meeting for Washington, DC in October, but then Hurricane Sandy intervened so we rescheduled, and wound up having even more people sign up for the meeting in December,” Norris remembers

Sponsors of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative event included Kaiser Permanente, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, America Walks and the American College of Sports Medicine. Speakers reflected wide-ranging enthusiasm about walking, including Vanessa Garrison (co-founder of Girl Trek, which rallies African-American women to walk) Christopher Leinberger (business professor at George Washington University and real estate developer working with Smart Growth America); Joan Dorn (Chief of the Physical Activity Branch of the Centers for Disease Control) and Philip Caruso (an executive of the Institute of Transportation Engineers).

The undisputed showstopper was 18th Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who publicly unveiled her plans to issue a Call to Action on Walking. She had first recognized the social and health benefits of walking after installing a walking path at the clinic she founded in rural Alabama. “You cannot underestimate the Call to Action as a way to motivate people. It propelled the collaboration forward and involved a lot of the people in that room in its research,” says Kate Kraft, who was there as a public health consultant and now is Executive Director of America Walks.

The other big news coming out that day was the announcement that the first-ever National Walking Summit would be held in Washington the next fall. The walking movement was on the march.