Boston, New York City and Portland, Ore., are often heralded for their community walkability.
Batesville, Ark.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Albert Lea, Minn.?
Not so much.
But those three communities are among those that have signed on to the principles of America Walks, a national organization that advocates safety and community well-being when it comes to pedestrian travel.
A growing number of leaders in Buffalo have begun to ask, "Why not us?"
"If a place can accommodate children, seniors and the disability community safely and accessibly without barriers, then you usually have a pretty walkable place," America Walks Executive Director Kate Kraft said.
Kraft will visit Western New York next weekend as part of a community panel discussion titled "Building a Healthy Buffalo." During a telephone interview this week, she laid out three keys to forging a more walkable community.
Complete streets: Walkable communities establish "people-first" policies that require future transportation investments and maintenance take into account all users. That means new street and repaving projects include a bike lane, or path, as well as sidewalk construction or improvements.
Focus on injury prevention and safety: New "Vision Zero" planning recommends that engineers and municipalities require plentiful crosswalks, traffic signals giving pedestrians time to cross streets safely, and pedestrian-friendly street signs and street lighting.
Beautification: "Things that make walking pleasant" also are important, Kraft said. Those things include benches, shade trees, and other features.
Most communities can benefit from such strategies.
"We're seeing more and more rural communities and smaller communities creating pockets of walkability," Kraft said. "You want to have a diverse environment that has proximity so that when you walk through it, you are engaged and delighted by the experience. It doesn't have to be really big. It doesn't have to be a metropolis."
Why walking matters
Western New Yorkers live in a state where only about half of residents get the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity.
Worse yet: Cattaraugus, Niagara and Chautauqua counties ranked in the bottom five of New York state's 62 counties in the most recent annual ranking of health outcomes by the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Erie and Orleans counties fell in the bottom 15 counties when considering measures that included premature death, tobacco use and air quality.
Walkable communities connect people, lower greenhouse gas emissions and help fuel the local economy, said Philip L. Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.
Walking regularly as part of an exercise regimen helps boost energy, reduce body fat and control weight, Haberstro said. It lowers stress and improves mood, strengthens bones and muscles, and improves sleep. It raises life expectancy and protects against chronic diseases that include heart disease, stroke, diabetes and depression.
The National Association of Realtors learned in a survey last year that most millennials, and almost half of baby boomers, were willing to give up housing size to live in a walkable place.
"We're seeing a shift in the trends around housing and a 'walk score' is one of the things people look at, and developers and realtors use, to sell a community," Kraft said.
Buffalo has a walk score of 68 out of 100, considered somewhat walkable, at walkscore.com. Some of its neighborhoods – most notably Allentown, the Central Business District and Bryant Street – score much higher.
Orchard Park, Amherst and Niagara Falls fall in the somewhat walkable range at 69, 59 and 51 respectively, while car-dependent communities include Tonawanda (48), Niagara Falls, Ont. (43), and Elma (14).
Walking is also accessible to almost everyone, regardless of age or financial status.
"The power of the walking picture is it reaches the largest market," Haberstro said. "When you complement it with biking or rolling or jogging and running, all of these things add to the dimensions of physical activity in our community."
Start of a movement
Why isn't Western New York doing better from a health, wellness and walkability standpoint?
"My simple assessment is we haven't been as strategic as we need to be," Haberstro said. "Programs are fine but you need policy. You need environmental changes. You need community coalitions and you need communication."
Such a combination can make a difference, he said, as it did in reducing smoking. One in two state residents used cigarettes in 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Today the number stands at one in five.
Public and institutional policy, environmental changes, support from the health care community, and communication that allowed health advocates get the word out about "healthy opportunities" made the difference, Haberstro said.
Western New York already is on the road to more walking.
The park system, almost unrivaled among American metro regions, includes Delaware Park, the Niagara River Greenway, the Inner Harbor and burgeoning Outer Harbor, all popular walking and rolling destinations.
The Wellness Institute's Steps Initiative set a goal of 50 million steps this year – and stood at 35 million as of this week. The number has yet to include Explore Buffalo walking tours, which accounted for 36 million steps last year. The numbers include mostly Institute-supported walks – a drop in the bucket compared to individual walking in Western New York.
Buffalo – with its Complete Streets program and Green Code – leads the way on the policy side, Haberstro said. He also lauded the effort that opened the 5½-mile Tonawanda/North Buffalo Rails to Trails path last year, and collaboration between Tonawanda town and city officials with Grand Island officials to better connect trails in the two communities. State Parks also has gotten into the act by announcing plans for an 8-mile bike and pedestrian path on Grand Island.
Other communities revamping master plans look to include Complete Streets policy or walkable communities principles, Haberstro said. The Wellness Institute is available to help with such efforts.
Catholic Health Systems has worked on indoor and outdoor walking trails at its facilities, and the nonprofit Explore Buffalo hosts host tours in several communities.
"I think, for a variety of reasons, there's been a recognition by elected officials, business people and the nonprofits about how these elements of walkability increase value and health in our communities," Haberstro said. "This helps our ability as a community make the healthy choice the easy choice."
How walkable is your community?
The Wellness Institute is close to creating a checklist to help municipal officials, planners and walkers of all stripes to help answer that question in their communities.
It should start with a walk alongside a family member or friend – and it involves noting things you would like to see changed for a more meaningful meandering.
Things to consider include:
Did you have room to walk? Were there sidewalks or paths? Were they continuous or did they go in fits and starts? Were they broken or cracked?
Was it easy to cross streets? Was the roadway too wide? Did traffic signals make you wait too long; did they give you enough time to cross? Are more traffic lights or crosswalks needed? Was the view of traffic blocked by parked cars, trees or plants? Do curbs or ramps need repair?
How did motorists behave? Did they back up without looking? Did they yield to you and other walkers? Did they turn into walkers? Did they drive too fast near pedestrians? Did they speed up to make traffic lights or drive through red lights?
Could you follow safety rules? Did you cross at crosswalks where you could see and be seen? Did you stop and look to the left and right before crossing? Did you walk on sidewalks or shoulders facing traffic? Did you cross with traffic lights?
Was your walk pleasant? Could the route use more grass, flowers or trees? Were there scary dogs? Scary people? Was the walking route dirty or litter-strewn? Was it dark or poorly lit at night? "In order to reach the full potential of walkability, you have to make that street look like someplace where people want to be out walking," said Sarah K. Martin, environmental health promotion specialist with the Wellness Institute. That includes landscaping and benches and other amenities."
Was it worthy exercise? Could you go as far as you wanted? Were you tired, short of breath or sore? If so, you may want to break a 30-minute walk in half, or thirds, and work your way up to longer walks.
The Wellness Institute is compiling its walkability checklist with help from America Walks, Partnership for a Walkable America, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and the U.S. Department of Transportation. It will encourage those who use the checklist on their walks to share the information with municipal officials, including board members and highway engineers, and consider working with others to help develop safer, more comfortable walkability in their communities.
Walking on Wednesday: Brisk, 30-minute walk at noon Wednesdays through August, Kaminski Park outside Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Elm and Carlton streets.
Building a Healthy Buffalo Community Panel: The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo will host a presentation by Buffalo City Public Works, Parks & Streets Commissioner Steven Stepniak, landscape architect Joy Kuebler, regional transportation planner Kelly Dixon, and Kate Kraft, executive director of America Walks, a national walkability advocacy group. Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon will moderate. The event will run from 8:30 to 11 a.m. Aug. 19 in the Hotel Henry, 444 Forest Ave.; a walk on the grounds of the surrounding Richardson campus will follow. The workshop is free. Municipal officials, planners and members of the public are encouraged to attend. Registration is required by calling 851-4052 or online by clicking here.
WNY Refresh Walk and Wellness Fair: 9 a.m. to noon, Aug. 26, Ellicott Creek Park, 1 Ellicott Creek Drive, Town of Tonawanda. Events include a 9:15 a.m. Exercise Like the Animals fitness class for kids of all ages; a 10 a.m. family wellness walk; and an 11 a.m. group fitness class by Shannon's Fitness & Dance. All are free. For vendor and other information, call 851-4052 or email email@example.com.
State Parks hiking series: Gorge hikes, 4:30 p.m. Aug. 26, Whirlpool State Park, Niagara Falls; 6 p.m. Sept. 16, Niagara Falls State Park – to register and for info, call 282-5154; Forest hike, 10 a.m. Aug. 26, Evangola State Park, Irving – to register and for info, call 549-1050; adventure walk, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 1, Goat Island, Niagara Falls State Park – to register and for info, call 282-5154; moonlight walk, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 6, woodland waterfalls walk, 3 p.m. Sept. 23, and search for nocturnal creatures walk, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23, Knox Farm State Park, East Aurora - to register and for info on the three walks, call 549-1050. All these walks are free. There are 18 state parks in the Buffalo-Niagara Region. See a list here.
Explore Buffalo: Offers regular walking tours of Buffalo neighborhoods and other communities including Clarence Hollow, East Aurora, Lancaster, Lockport and North Tonawanda. Cost is usually $5 to $15. Sign up and learn more at explorebuffalo.org.
Build more walking into your routine
The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo recommends the following ways:
• Take the stairs.
• If you have to walk a dog anyway, go one more time around the block – the dog will be happy, too.
• Walk in place or do simple aerobic exercises in a clear space while watching TV.
• Walk while talking at home on a cellphone or cordless phone, especially if you have long-winded friends or family members; pay attention to where you're walking.
• Park farther away from the door at work or while at a store or the mall.
• Walk instead of sitting when having an informal meeting with friends or co-workers.
• Find interesting places to walk – the woods, a park or along the water with a friend; window shop at the mall; take a couple of extra laps around the grocery or department store.