The view from the sidewalk

Way back in the day, I used to bike to work during the summer. The distance wasn’t far and traffic was light. I could leave my bike at a convenient bike rack near the newsroom.

It was a great addition to my daily routine. I saved a ton of money on gas. Better than that, I was in the best physical shape of my life ever.

Nowadays I wouldn’t even contemplate riding a bike to work. Even if city sprawl hadn’t made it too time-consuming to be practical, the traffic is simply unsafe.

City sprawl, you say? Unsafe traffic? In rural west central Minnesota?

Believe it. A new report by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy challenges the notion that only cities need to think about bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. In fact, the authors of the report found that in some smaller communities, the number of people who frequently walk or bike is higher than that in cities and suburbs. Moreover, many rural residents see a real need for communities to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

In the words of Kevin Mills, vice president of policy and trail development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and one of the report’s authors, “Small communities need safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities just as much as big cities.”

The full report, “Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers,” can be found here.

Several statistics leaped out at me. For instance, people who live in towns with a population between 2,500 to 10,000 ride a bicycle to work at twice the rate of those in urban centers. They also are just as likely to walk to work as residents of urban cores. Residents of towns in the 10,000 to 50,000 population range walk to work at a rate almost identical to urban core communities.

Rural Americans care about bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure too. When asked to choose their priorities from a list that included major roads and long-distance travel, they picked sidewalks more than any other need.

The report comes at a time of growing national recognition of the shortcomings of our built environment: All too often, the communities we live in are designed to subtly sabotage our best efforts to be physically active.

About a year ago I joined a group of local public health and law enforcement folks for a “walking audit” of the Willmar Middle School and immediate neighborhood. It’s pretty surprising what you start noticing from a sidewalk’s-eye view: Wide four-lane streets with busy traffic and few pedestrian crossings. No bike lanes or paths. Neighborhood streets with no sidewalks. Pedestrians ignoring the crosswalks. Speeding drivers.

Should it be any surprise that more kids don’t walk to school, or more adults don’t bike or walk to work?

Although we’d like to think that incorporating more physical activity in our daily routines is a matter of choice, the reality is more complicated than this. I’d love to dust off my bike, fix the flat tires and start pedaling to work once again – but I have to weigh this against heavy traffic, the absence of bike lanes and the very real possibility of being crushed by someone’s SUV, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk.

Reducing these barriers in the environment won’t be easy. Infrastructure is costly, and bike lanes and sidewalks face fierce competition for transportation dollars. And how do you retrain two generations of bikers, pedestrians and motorists who aren’t accustomed to safely sharing the road.

It’s therefore encouraging to see these issues being studied and talked about in ways that weren’t happening 10 years ago. Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for change after all.