Walking guru suggests ways community can be healthier

Mark Fenton, a walking advocate and host of the PBS show “America’s Walking,” asks students from New York School to raise their hands if they ride their bicycle to school. On Oct. 6, 2009, Fenton and Lawrence leaders walked around the New York School neighborhood to see how safe the sidewalks and streets were for bicyclists and pedestrians. They got an earful from the students and quickly learned there were areas that needed improvement.

Ground broken

Even though construction is already under way, city leaders gathered Tuesday to officially break ground on the new Burroughs Creek Trail and Linear Park in east Lawrence.

“It’s a great cooperation,” said Mayor Rob Chestnut. “It was once a dream. It took a lot of work and a lot of time and we got there.”

The trail runs along a former railroad route that’s just west of Haskell Avenue from 11th to 23rd streets. It will feature crossing lights, a raised crosswalk and a pedestrian bridge that will connect the trail with Parnell Park, which is near the trail at 15th and Maryland streets.

“I think it’s great for bicycles and just walkability in the east Lawrence neighborhood,” Chestnut said.

Work on the trail started at the beginning of October and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.

Walk to School Day

Be on the lookout for groups of children taking the long way to their classroom this morning. Today is International Walk to School Day, and at least six Lawrence elementary schools have planned groups to get kids outside to use their legs to start of their day of learning.

Walk to School Day was started to promote children’s health, improve air quality and the environment, and to create safer routes for kids who walk or bike to school more than once a year.

Eleven-year-old Devin McCart gave Mark Fenton, a nationally prominent walking and bicycling advocate, an earful early Tuesday afternoon as they walked the sidewalks that surrounded his school at 936 N.Y.

The fifth-grade student, who walks to school, pointed out the emerging bricks, overgrown bushes, and places where there wasn’t even a sidewalk.

Devin, New York School Principal Nancy DeGarmo and nine other student council representatives joined about a dozen Lawrence leaders during a walking audit of the area.

The students also pointed out the cement steps that lead to the bicycle rack and how the steps often are cluttered with debris.

“The kids were pretty powerful,” said Bart Rudolph, transportation planner with Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization. “The users of the facility, regardless of age, all want the same thing. They want a safe place to walk and it doesn’t take an engineer to identify the needs. It just takes everyday users.”

Fenton, who hosts the PBS TV series “America’s Walking,” said students can be advocates for change and should be included in the planning process.

“Clearly, these are real issues for these guys. We need to take it to heart,” he told the city leaders.

A healthier Lawrence

The 40-minute walking audit was followed by a presentation, “Building a Healthier Lawrence,” at the Lawrence Arts Center, where Fenton was one of two keynote speakers. The other speaker was Sara Snow, a national advocate for buying locally grown and organic foods.

Fenton said he is an advocate for building “pedestrian-, bicycle- and transit-friendly” communities for a number of reasons. Among them: it reduces global warming, helps the local economy, reduces health costs and saves lives.

Only 25 percent of U.S. adults are getting the surgeon general’s recommended 30 minutes of daily activity. There are 365,000 premature deaths annually because of inactivity and poor nutrition. The only thing that kills more Americans prematurely is tobacco.

When Fenton asked audience members about how they got to the presentation, a majority said they used a vehicle — not by walking, bicycling or the bus system.

Despite advocates such as Fenton talking about the health benefits of being more physically active during the past 10 to 20 years, there has been no change in how many people are doing so. That’s why he is a believer in building an environment that makes it easier for people to get activity during their daily routines.

For example, in Lawrence people are more apt to be active in the downtown area — where there are places to eat, work, live, shop or get a cup of coffee within a short distance — compared with west Lawrence.

He said Free State High School seems to be in the middle of nowhere, where students are almost forced to use vehicles instead of bicycles or walking. He noted the retailers along Clinton Parkway and Sixth Street have large parking lots that are inviting for vehicles, but not for pedestrians or bicyclists.

Fenton noticed that the South Lawrence Trafficway bicycle trail wasn’t being used much. He suggested connecting the trail to more residential areas, retailers and other trails if possible.

His other suggestions included: putting garages behind homes in alleys; taking down the huge walls that separate retail and residential areas; and turning four-lane streets into two-lane streets with bicycle lanes and a center turn lane. The last idea was applauded.

“If you design for more cars, you will get more cars,” he said. “We can do better.”

Fenton also suggested that the downtown Lawrence area might want to follow in the footsteps of Des Moines, Iowa, which introduced “back-in only parking” because it is safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.

And, yes, he gave Lawrence a thumbs up for its roundabouts.

‘We can do better’

He ended by telling the story of a pedestrian in Harrisburg, Pa., who was crossing a bridge. When Fenton asked the man whether he exercised, the man replied that he didn’t. But during the conversation, Fenton learned the man walked across the bridge every day to work to save $7 on parking. It was cheaper to park across the bridge and walk 15 minutes to work.

“He was getting the recommended daily amount of exercise and didn’t even consider it exercise — he was just saving money.”

Fenton said he is a health advocate for a lot of reasons, but most importantly, he said, it’s for his children and those students at New York School.

Fenton said children ages 11 to 13 are the first generation that is projected to have a shorter life span than the one before because of a sedentary lifestyle and poor nutrition.

“We are building a world that discourages them from being physically active,” he said. “We can do better.”

Chip Blaser, executive director of the Douglas County Community Foundation and a member of the LiveWell Lawrence coalition, said the day’s events reiterated the importance of how our environment is connected to our health, and how people of all ages can make a difference.

“It’s not something that has to be done one way,” he said. “We really can have a community conversation around ways that we can make a real impact on the daily lives of everyone here in our community — just by the way we prioritize walking and biking and making sure our community is conducive to those things.”