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Advocating for ‘walkability’ in car-centric Baltimore-area ‘burbs | COMMENTARY

Baltimore City ranks 11th nationwide for walkability, but the suburbs? They belong to the cars. Far too many of the communities have no sidewalks, no protected areas for children to play, no designated pedestrian lanes and no safe passage to the store, park, school, library, coffee shop or even the neighbors’ house.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Surgeon General call for more walking and more walkable neighborhoods, local government isn’t making it safe for children or adults. My neighborhood in Baltimore County is fantastic if you’re a car; not so much if you’re a kid looking to play. With no sidewalks or designated pedestrian lanes, and no pedestrian traffic light in the few places where there are crosswalks, it’s simply not safe to use the outdoor space we have for exercise or play. For the past few years, I’ve been raising this issue with the county executive’s office, council members and local authorities. So far, we’ve gotten a white line painted on the side of one road that provided a small shoulder area for walking.

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We can do better.

As simple as it sounds, walking is good for us. It can help fight obesity and diabetes, combat senior loneliness, and improve overall health in all age groups. In fact, walking is good for your mental and physical health no matter your age, gender or ethnicity.

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Many of us remember when we were younger walking everywhere. Visiting friends, going to school, running to the store were all an act of foot traffic. And just like our ancestors who worked in fields and ran houses without labor saving appliances, we were fitter — less diabetes, less obesity, less separation from our friends and neighbors, more human contact. Often simply by walking.

Today, only half of adults and a quarter of high school students get the amount of physical activity recommended in national guidelines — and those are not rigorous guidelines. Simply walking would shift the balance.

Research by the University of North Carolina Gittings School of Global Public Health studied the walking patterns more than 16,000 women over age 60. Measuring both short bursts (climbing stairs, housework, going to or from the car) and longer bouts of 10 minutes or more. The study found that compared with no steps, each initial increase of 1,000 steps per day was associated with a 28% decrease in death during the follow-up period. More than 2,000 steps daily in uninterrupted bouts resulted in a 32% decrease in death.

The American Heart Association agrees, and provides basic guidelines on how best to get your daily walk. What they do not provide is the safe way to do it when you step out of your door. If we don’t want to get involved in the absurdity of getting in a car and driving in order to find a safe place to walk (fine if you want to visit Lake Roland or stroll a golf course, but not ideal on a daily basis), then it is time we called on our local governments to take action. Not just in the Baltimore suburbs, but all across the nation.

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Politicians talk about making America more walkable. Doctors say it is essential for the future health of our young people and our seniors. But to move from the theoretical to the practical this problem must be solved at the local level. Counties, cities, small cities, towns, even community boards and homeowner associations must be made to deal with the issue. So here’s an idea: Make your first walk from your car to your local community/government meeting and put the issue in front of them. Walk around your neighborhood with a petition to get sidewalks and pedestrian-safe areas. Together we can do this. It’s a matter of health, safety, long life and happiness for all of us.

Daniel Freedman (daniel@burnalong.com) is co-CEO of Baltimore County-based BurnAlong, an online corporate health, wellness and social motivation platform that hosts a competition among users to track engagement in health and wellness activities, known as America’s Healthiest Company and City Challenge.

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