Walking your talk

“As drivers get accustomed to routine pedestrian activity, they become more aware — and, more importantly, more cautious.”

— pedestrian advocate Phillip Abernethy

Nearly 24 pedestrians line the sidewalk along Montford Avenue, eyed by curious motorists. First- and second-grade students carry signs proclaiming, “Thanks for driving slow!” Another sign proudly announces, “We walk to school.” On Oct. 2, parents, teachers, students and community leaders at Isaac Dickson and Jones elementary schools organized a “walking school bus” in honor of International Walk to School Day. This reporter joined an enthusiastic group of pedestrians at the Montford Community Center for a nostalgic morning stroll to school. For some parents, the activity brought back fond memories — a time, not too long ago, when most of us actually got up, got dressed, had breakfast — and walked to school.

Thirty years ago, more than 66 percent of all children walked to school, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, less than 15 percent of school kids do. In our automobile-centered culture, walking or biking to school seldom seems to find a place in the day’s frantic scramble.

Some parents, however, are bucking the trend. For Phillip Abernethy, walking his son Patrick home from school each day enables them to spend some quality time together.

Lawrence Hines and his son Henry decided to join the local walk-to-school group to help promote the idea of reducing the amount of traffic during the morning rush to school. For Hines, this was a new experience.

Ginny Faust of the N.C. Division of Community Assistance, which co-sponsored the event, added, “It’s important that we encourage walk-to-school events, but more importantly, we need safe routes for our children to walk.” Her agency helps local governments across the state with community development, economic development, smart-growth management and downtown revitalization.

How walkable are Asheville’s streets? “You really have to pay attention!” warns Abernethy. Three days a week, Abernethy (who is visually impaired and uses a sensory cane) walks the two miles from his north-Asheville residence to pick up his son at Dickson Elementary. Together they negotiate the sometimes treacherous route home. Abernethy admits that some areas are better than others. He routinely charts a longer, albeit safer, course to avoid speeding motorists and dangerous intersections.

But fast cars and impatient drivers aren’t the only road hazards that challenge pedestrians. Abernethy wears a day pack stocked with a few essentials, including a pair of work gloves and a set of pruning shears to bushwhack his way through some of the overgrown hedges, limbs and lawn debris that often block the sidewalk. “Residents along sidewalks could make the sidewalks safer if they maintained them more regularly,” Abernethy observes.

Obstacles encountered during the group walk included encroaching bushes, telephone poles and loose gravel along the sidewalk. At one point, a too-narrow stretch of walkway left this reporter feeling as if he were balancing on a plank instead using a neighborhood sidewalk. Such barriers, says Abernethy, are fairly typical of what city pedestrians must contend with.

East of Montford, another group (mostly teachers from Claxton Elementary) joined us, armed with a “Walkability Checklist.” The short, simple questionnaire (a project of The Walk To School Initiatives, a national program) helps residents assess their neighborhoods, identify specific walking problems, and ultimately rate their streets for “pedestrian-friendliness.”

Among the obstacles encroaching on the sidewalks were: parked cars, trash cans and outdated signs announcing a Planning and Zoning Commission community meeting that had already happened. And various north-Asheville streets were found to have no sidewalks at all. The final message from the checklist sounded loud and clear: There’s still a lot of work to be done to make Asheville a truly walkable community.

But why does it matter? What’s so great about walking anyway? According to both national and local event organizers, daily walking opens participants’ eyes to the need for sidewalks and trails, safe street crossings, more cautious drivers, safer walkers and cyclists, and even state legislation to fund improvements. Walking also promotes community awareness, helps reduce traffic congestion, and encourages healthful physical activity.

All across the country, concerned citizens are initiating take-back-the-streets events promoting safe routes to school and encouraging alternative modes of transportation. And part of the purpose of last week’s local walking event, say organizers, is to encourage folks to sustain the momentum and keep walking regularly — whether it’s to school or to work.

This strength-in-numbers approach, maintains Abernethy, is a safe and educational way to give pedestrians more visibility. “As drivers get accustomed to routine pedestrian activity, they become more aware — and, more importantly, more cautious,” he contends.

One step at a time

The morning gridlock, frustration and chaos parents often face while ferrying their kids to school each day reflect an automobile-based society whose citizens seem to be perennially in a hurry. “In our time-oriented society, we have almost forgotten how to be neighborly to one another,” muses Abernethy. “Walking from school slows the pace of things and allows time for us to see how each other’s day has been.” This may include bumping into like-minded families who are also opting to walk instead of driving.

For Terri March, the continuing decline in the health of American kids is reason enough to get out and walk to school. (The number of overweight U.S. teens has tripled since 1980, and Type 2 diabetes, once unheard of in children, is increasing dramatically among adolescents, according to a sobering report released by the CDC in August.) March, a health-education specialist at the Buncombe County Health Center, has also been active in related local grassroots initiatives, such as Strive Not to Drive. “Our children need to be more active in their daily routine,” she maintains. “Walking to school promotes physical activity and encourages children and their parents to choose to walk on other short-distance trips.”

When kicking off his HealthierUs initiative this summer, President Bush proclaimed, “When it comes to your health, even little steps can make a difference.” Outlined in a 16-page booklet, the HealthierUs initiative calls for at least a half-hour of exercise every day for adults, and more for children. Here in North Carolina, most kids (7 out of 10) watch an hour or more of TV each day, yet only one in four gets the recommended amount of daily exercise. And according to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NC’s Be Active Kids program, North Carolina ranks 39th in the nation in terms of the health and well-being of its children.

And given the usual early-morning scramble to get the kids off, some parents may have a hard time even imagining finding the additional time and energy needed to walk to school. Parents who’ve taken the plunge admit that it does require some extra planning. One mother said she scouted her route on a Sunday and noted how long it took to walk. Adjusting bedtime hours also seems to help some families manage the transition.

But Hillcrest neighbors Dawn Marie Rowe and Robina Mehias say they’ve been inspired by their own kids. “It’s the other way around: Our kids motivate us!” declares Rowe with a laugh. And the bottom line, adds Mehias, is, “It’s fun.”

In a sense, we stand at a transportation crossroads. One path promises unsafe street crossings, sedentary lifestyles and compromised air quality. The other path, highlighted by last week’s pedestrian event, seems to point toward a safer, healthier and cleaner community. It’s a choice we make every day.

Pointers for pedestrians

To learn more about walkability issues, contact Terri March (250-4833, 250-5047, e-mail: Terri.March@buncombecounty.org) or visit www.walktoschool.org.

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