By Cindy Phan
October 25, 2013
I've had three principal homes over the past 20 or so years-the suburbs of Sacramento, the UC-Berkeley campus, and the Sunset district of San Francisco-and had vastly different experiences in each place. I grew up as a child in an immigrant, low-income family, became a student at California's flagship university, and then entered the workforce as a young professional and renter.
I'm struck by how different each place felt. In some neighborhoods, I couldn't walk-because I didn't feel safe, because sidewalks dead-ended. In other neighborhoods, I enjoyed access to public transit options, well-lit streets, and walkable neighborhoods. In some communities, it was the norm to drive from A to B, even if the destinations were only a mile apart. In others, you hopped on a bus that would cruise through the city and pick up other transit users along the way. As I moved from place to place, these differences shaped my options, finances, and quality of life in profound ways.
My experiences taught me that no two communities in California look alike-and that while all communities face their own active transportation challenges, low-income communities face greater barriers to walking. The communities where people walk are those that have sidewalks, traffic-calming measures such as traffic circles, and streets that are designed for pedestrians. They are places where it feels safe to be on the street and they have parks and trails close by. In communities that lack the resources and the infrastructure to support walking and physical activity, residents live with higher rates of chronic disease and higher stress levels, and they have limited options for how they can get to schools, workplaces and retail destinations.
In California, we're taking significant strides to make our communities more walkable. This fall, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 99 into law, creating an integrated Active Transportation Program. The dogged advocacy efforts of many organizations have helped preserve existing programs like Safe Routes to School and boosted overall funding for active transportation investments by 35 percent to $130 million for its first year. The new Active Transportation Program also commits at least 25 percent of funds to benefit disadvantaged communities.
Along with a workgroup comprised of government agencies and experts in bike and pedestrian uses, the California Transportation Commission is moving quickly to develop an implementation plan for the new program. This is a critical time to ensure that funds go to address the community conditions that fuel health inequities in low-income communities. Program guidelines, project selection criteria, and performance measures should be crafted to prioritize funding for communities that have the farthest to go to get to walkability and whose residents experience a higher burden of chronic disease.
In a time of shrinking funds for active transportation, California's Active Transportation Program is a big win. As the dollars begin to flow, we health and equity advocates should continue to push for a program that funds projects in communities that will benefit the most.
For more on tools and stories that help make the case for walkable communities, take a look at our new brief, Walk On: Strategies for Walkable Communities.