When Wendy Alfsen’s granddaughter lived right across the street from a library, the little girl’s family would take her there regularly — via automobile.
Six lanes across and with a two-block span between crosswalks, the street was simply unsafe for a small child to cross directly from the house. Rather than spend half an hour walking to a cross walk with their youngster, the family opted to jump in the car.
That street is the kind of physical environment that discourages people from being active in their daily lives, and it’s the kind of physical environment that Alfsen is working to improve as executive director of California WALKS.
“People want to walk,” she says. “They just want to walk in a way that’s enjoyable, that connects them. They want to walk in places where there are people, where 100 percent of their attention doesn’t have to be on safety. Walking is our basic freedom.”
California WALKS supports projects to create pedestrian friendly communities across the Golden State. In recent weeks, the organization has spent time in the state Capitol, lobbying legislators to support funding for Safe Routes to School (SRTS) projects.
In the proposed state budget, SRTS funding in California would be consolidated into the Active Transportation Program, which seeks to promote projects that support transportation alternatives such as walking and biking.
It’s a positive development, Alfsen says, because it shows that the state is serious about alternative forms of transit. But it also would strip SRTS of its independent status and not guarantee that a minimum amount of money will be spent to support SRTS.
“We have an opportunity to both grow Safe Routes to School and as well, a challenge that it could be lost,” Alfsen explains. “We’re for the change, because of its possibility, but we’re against it if it means we’re going to lose Safe Routes to School.”
Fortunately, losing SRTS in California is unlikely, Alfsen says. Legislation to maintain the SRTS program at the state level recently passed the state assembly. Meanwhile, both the assembly and senate subcommittees overseeing the Active Transportation Project proposal voted to reject it as written in the budget bill; expected negotiations are likely to work to support bike and pedestrian projects without damaging SRTS.
California WALKS’s efforts to protect SRTS fall closely in line with the organization’s overall mission to help make it easier for people to walk in their daily lives. As more communities were designed and built to support automobiles, walking slowly disappeared without people even noticing, Alfsen says.
It wasn’t until the public health community sounded the alarm that people began to realize how little everyone was walking, she adds. That led to the creation of programs such as SRTS that seek to reverse the trend.
“It is public health who has been really fueling this change,” Alfsen says. “It’s the tie to childhood obesity that has helped the world understand the consequences of immobility.”
Along with helping support SRTS, California WALKS is working on “Safe Routes to Transit” projects, which allow people to walk or bicycle to public transportation.
The organization also operates programs that empower local communities to work to make their neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly. For example, people work with local officials to build sidewalks, install crosswalks and signage and ensure streetlights provide enough time for people to actually cross the street. These efforts typically begin with a community cleanup, which demonstrates that the public right-of-way belongs to people.
“Physical activity got omitted from our lives without anybody noticing,” Alfsen says. “These programs help us notice, and they have us go, ‘Oh yeah, that is important.’”
By the way, Alfsen’s granddaughter now lives across the street from a park. She and her family can cross the street on foot.