Susan Buzzell with Sandy Butler, University of Maine.
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on October 13, 2015.
With over 92,000 riders logging nearly 38 million miles from May 1 to Sept. 30, the People for Bikes’ 2015 National Bike Challenge surpassed its goals of registering 75,000 riders to pedal 35 million miles. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine saw 230 Maine cyclists register for the national challenge and ride over 157,000 miles.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy this fall issued a walk challenge of sorts with his report “ Step It Up,” a call to action for more walking by Americans and more walkable communities in the United States. At a September launch for this campaign, Murthy noted the U.S. has lost “the culture of physical activity.” The public health benefits of increasing physical activity among children and adults are many, including improved cardiorespiratory fitness and bone health, lower risk of heart disease and stroke, prevention of falls and reduced depression.
As little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise — such as walking or biking — per day could help prevent the chronic diseases from which most Americans die, according to Murthy. Yet nearly half of the country’s population lives in communities where walking is difficult and dangerous. But there are ways we can make Maine communities more livable, walkable and “bikeable.”
There is a worldwide movement to create more livable communities, especially for older adults. But not just older adults benefit from this increased attention to bicycle lanes and pedestrian and public transportation options. Millennials in Maine, like their counterparts across the country, are choosing to walk, bike, and use public transport at a higher rate than their parents and grandparents, the BDN noted in August. We should do everything we can to support this healthier and more environmentally conscious trend among young adults.
Some states and communities are implementing a “ complete streets” approach that aims to make streets safe and convenient for travel by car, foot, bicycle and transit, regardless of age or ability. In one poll conducted to inform this approach, 40 percent of adults 50 and older reported inadequate sidewalks or busy streets that were unsafe to cross in their communities. Half of those reporting such problems said they would walk, bicycle or take the bus more if those problems were fixed.
Thankfully, a number of communities in Maine, including Bangor and Portland, have adopted this “complete streets” approach for infrastructure development. Residents are already seeing and approving of the changes. Future developments along these lines will require our continued support — and funding.
Such investments save lives in two ways: in the short term, fewer pedestrians are killed by cars; in the long term, we all have the opportunity to improve our health by actively enjoying Maine’s beautiful outdoors.
One opportunity is LD 193, a bill introduced this past legislative session by state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, which proposes investing $13 million for the design and construction of 50 approved bicycle and pedestrian projects across Maine. Lawmakers will take up this bill in January and it deserves support because of its potential to make Maine communities safe and more appealing to those who want — and, per Surgeon General Murthy, need — to walk, bike or roll.
Recent traffic problems at Acadia National Park demonstrate that we can threaten the very environments we want to appreciate by relying too much on our cars. It isn’t necessary to use a car to do errands around town, to go for scenic rides or to go out for daily walks. But with a history of incomplete streets and a planning infrastructure focused on cars, these activities today can certainly require significantly greater effort and entail risk.
When we are all more at ease and safer to challenge ourselves to walk, pedal our bikes, roller blade and move our wheelchairs and wheeled walkers, we will be healthier. Moreover, by making our communities more walking- and biking-friendly, we will add to the opportunities to keep older Mainers aging well, and to the attractions that bring young adults (back) to live, work, and raise families in our beautiful state.
Susan Buzzell is an independent blogger and cyclist living in Orono. Sandy Butler is professor of social work and graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Butler is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.