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The Rise of Walkable Environments


Iowa, Massachusetts and Oregon have vividly different landscapes, demographics and transportation needs. However, each of these states has committed to improving health in their communities, lowering health care and transportation costs, building their economies and improving quality of life for their residents.

The nonprofit organization America Walks has studied each state’s plan for these improvements, and has published case studies that will help guide other states that wish to take on similar initiatives.

In Iowa alone, there are more than 700,000 obese adults, and more than 530,000 adults are physically inactive. Additionally, the rate of diabetes jumped from 8.2 percent to 9.7 percent of adults just in the last year.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad launched the Healthiest State Initiative in 2011. This initiative supports healthy eating and active living for Iowans through a number of opportunities, such as walking and biking for all ages and abilities with the Iowa Trails Council and the Iowa Bicycle Coalition; joining an annual Talk the Walk contest; starting a walking program by employers with guidance from the American Heart Association; and conducting walkability assessments developed by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

America Walks highlights these programs in response to this public health issue, saying, “Iowa has created several programs that promote walking as a basic, easy and accessible form of travel and physical activity—one that can ease congestion and bolster commerce.”

Massachusetts, unlike Iowa, has a predominantly urban population, and is the 7th smallest state by area with a thriving population of more than 6.6 million individuals. The United Health Foundation tallied an obesity rate of 22.9 percent among adults in the state in 2014. Moreover, more than 1 million adults there are physically inactive.

In 2009, Massachusetts established the Healthy Transportation Compact, a piece of legislation that directs the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to partner with various local, state and federal agencies when considering health in transportation.

Massachusetts implemented another program in 2010, known as GreenDOT, which establishes a statewide goal to better promote the options to walk, bike or use public transit. A third program, known as WeMove Massachusetts, is part of the state’s long-range transportation plan. The WeMove program tracks the Bay State Greenway, a shared-use path network that will connect people to businesses, and promote long-distance bicycling and walking.

“Massachusetts’ efforts on implementing innovative transportation solutions that support the public’s health and safety – and that support local economies – complement other statewide goals, like sustainability and service to customers,” the case study says.

Oregon is a state known for its picturesque scenery with miles of hiking trails and coastal beaches. When you think of Oregon, you probably think of people hiking and biking outdoors. In spite of the many options for outdoor activities and trails, nearly 820,000 Oregonians are obese and almost 300,000 have diabetes, and the numbers in the state continue to rise.

Transportation decisions have a direct impact on a community’s health and wealth. Food insecurity has risen to 14.8 percent of adults aged 60 and older in Oregon. The ability to access healthy and affordable foods via the transportation options across the state is a substantial health concern in Oregon, as well elsewhere in the U.S.

In response, Oregon has been identifying a number of ways to tackle these issues. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Oregon Health Authority, Public Health Division (OHA-PHD) have formed a partnership. ODOT has been active in including health in planning processes and safety projects. Meanwhile, OHA-PHD has been encouraging statewide pedestrian safety for children and looking at transportation planning and design through a public health lens.

 “The ODOT Active Transportation Section demonstrated an emphasis on solutions that support walking from a multidisciplinary perspective. It moved away from a traditional, siloed approach seen in many jurisdictions,” the America Walks case study explains.

In an effort to improve public health and reduce obesity rates across states, there must be an environment that fosters healthy eating and exercise. More access to active transportation – like walking and biking – has been shown to increase physical activity, improve health and lower health care costs.

People who drive less and walk more also save money on their transportation costs and have more disposable income, which in turn gives them a better chance to be able to afford healthier food options. Looking closely at what other states are doing to tackle these issues could be beneficial in moving the country forward toward better health.  

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