Whether around the lakes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on the Omaha Reservation in Walthill, Nebraska, or in the small immigrant Village of Sodus, New York, making sure streets are safe for everyone to walk, bike or take a bus has no ethnic, political or regional bounds. As each community faces different challenges, there is a national focus to ensure that rural, lower income communities and communities of color are able to advance healthy community design.
The lack of safe spaces to walk, bicycle or be outside in a community has a direct impact on physical activity levels, job access, education options and housing quality. Health equity is central to the work of making neighborhoods safer for kids to walk to school, families to walk and bike to parks and libraries, and the workforce to safely get to their jobs.
The Village of Walthill has a population of just 780; most are Native American. A great number of their children walk to school and a primary concern was safety, so the Planner and Developer for the Village worked with national experts to establish a Complete Streets Ordinance.
The small town of Sodus, New York, (pop. 1,800) sits midway between Rochester and Syracuse and uses the school as a primary gathering place for community residents, so accessibility is a priority. Unfortunately, in some cases the sidewalks are heaved and cracked; in other cases, no sidewalks have ever been constructed. The Village Planning Board and elected officials, including the Mayor, looked to national experts to help them to formulate and pass a sustainable, binding Complete Streets Resolution.
The real equity work demands lengthier branches and deeper roots to grow. True advocacy in underserved communities means acknowledging the hard issues, uplifting those already on the ground, and elevating the voice of the unheard.
Jeff Soileau, a fitness advocate and American Heart Association volunteer, knows first-hand the impact of pedestrian safety. “As a runner, it helps to have a lot of signs telling cars to watch for pedestrians. You should be able to run in the community that you live in,” he says as he recounts how he was hit by a car while running and, thankfully, the driver saw him just moments before the collision.
On November 25, 2014, the East Baton Rouge Metro Council unanimously adopted a Complete Streets policy so people like Soileau can walk, bike or run without concern for their own safety. Complete Streets are designed with consideration for users of all ages and physical ability, and they allow for multiple modes of transportation. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transportation users are able to safely move along and across a complete street.
A coalition known as the Baton Rouge Sustainable Transportation Advisory Committee worked over the course of a year to put all the pieces together. This coalition, led by the AARP and supported by the American Heart Association, is working with other organizations to ensure safer streets for all.
City Councilor Ronnie Edwards, the bill sponsor, says “it was the perfect storm, in a good way. The mayor’s office designated a staff person who did the detailed work for the committee.”
Priority for new sidewalks and other street projects will likely be near schools and where safety concerns are the greatest. “The most vocal response from the community has been about children walking to school. One particular area has four elementary schools in pretty close proximity to each other and limited sidewalks. There have been some fatalities, so in my mind those areas need to be given a great deal of consideration,” says Edwards.
“We have families that are walking in the street to get to clinics, libraries and parks. They may be in a multi-unit housing complex and they don’t have a yard. It’s not just kids walking to school, but those who need to walk six to eight blocks to the library to access the internet and do their homework. If you can’t push a stroller down the street in a way that’s safe, you can’t access basic medical care,” says Soileau.
Critical to the effectiveness of Complete Streets is ensuring low-income neighborhoods, where fewer people have cars and there are more concerns about safety, are included as a priority for implementing the new standards. One way Baton Rouge will successfully make this happen is by giving authority to the citizen advisory board to prioritize which neighborhoods are in greatest need of more walkable and bikeable routes.
“We talk all the time and say ‘go outside and be active,’ but for a lot of people that’s just not an option. We’ll take some roads from four lanes to two lanes to make space for bus stops and bike lanes and sidewalks. We have what was a very good public transportation network here and it’s become stigmatized. We hope Complete Streets is going to make transportation available for everybody,” Soileau says. “Downtown is in a huge state of growth right now. We’re hoping now that Complete Streets have passed, we can add the things that allow people to get places without a car. But part of that will be educating the people in the cars that there are safety measures in place.”
For families and fitness enthusiasts alike, Baton Rouge is working towards designing streets built to share for all.
As communities across the country advance health equity in how they build their streets, they can now use new tools from national experts. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership brings expertise on social and health equity to communities of every size and shape. Recently, the National Partnership worked with the NAACP to create an equity asset map and develop new resources to help Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian communities advance Street Scale and shared use Initiatives.
Next time you take a walk in your neighborhood or are sitting in your car at an intersection, take a look and see what’s missing. The establishment of great policies like Complete Streets in Baton Rouge, the Village of Walthill, and the small town of Sodus, or in your town are opportunities to say wholeheartedly that no one who deems themselves a part of community should be left behind. Or in Dr. King’s words, it is our chance to “commit to the noble struggle of equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
This article was written by Keith Benjamin of Safe Routes to School National Partnership.