Walkability is a word you hear discussed about communities. It's used to describe how easily a community can be navigated on foot, as well as bicycle, and how much access there is to those areas. In other words, how many sidewalks, crosswalks, paths, etc., does a community have, and are they easy to get around on.
There have been studies done for communities in Northeast Michigan, and they have been met with enthusiasm for what is available. Take Alpena for instance: the city has plenty of sidewalks that are in good condition, there are crosswalks that are easily marked, there is a bipath in places that make for enjoyable walks. It has a lot going for it.
But walkability can mean so much more for a community. A walkable community, and especially a downtown, can bring economic vitality to a community. While walkability is something big cities like to brag about, a new study, "Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers" by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, shows not only how much it can mean to small cities and towns, but also that those communities excel at it.
The study is filled with examples of how active transportation is used in communities and what it means to them in terms of health, economy and overall appeal of the community. As a side note, the study is filled with people utilizing sidewalks, walking and bicycling paths, bridges, etc., and there is a photo of a couple in Alpena walking on Second Avenue.
The study states:
"Walking and biking are woven into the fabric of rural life. In terms of total trips (see chart on page 6), rural Americans walk at a rate between 58 and 80 percent of the overall national rate, depending on what type of community they live in. For biking, the numbers are even higher - between 74 and 104 percent. And when it comes to work, residents of certain kinds of rural communities walk and bike almost as much (and in a few cases, even more) as residents of cities and inner suburbs.
"Within small towns of 2,500 to 10,000 residents (defined as Small Rural Core on accompanying charts), people walk for work purposes (both commuting and during work) at a rate similar to cities and close-in suburbs (defined as Urban Core on accompanying charts) - 3.7 percent of all trips, compared to 3.9 percent."
Next time you are out and about (probably driving) see how many people you see walking. There are several who will look familiar because you'll see them regardless of the season. While some hearty souls continue to pedal their way around town all year, this year's mild winter so far has added a few bicyclists to the number.
While gas prices ($3.59 as of Friday afternoon) have had a role in how some people get to work, there are a number of residents who walk for a number of other reasons. Regardless of why they do it, their actions help the community.
If you're thinking that walking only benefits the locals and it's obvious we would take advantage of our community, take this nugget from the report:
"A study of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem area (which includes Billings and Bozeman), in fact, shows that one in four businesses in this rural region was started after the owner visited as a tourist. At a U.S. Congressional briefing hosted by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in April 2011, Billings Chamber of Commerce CEO John Brewer got right to the point: 'Talented people move to Billings in large part because of our trail system that creates the quality of life they are expecting. A healthy trail system is vital to a healthy community.' As evidence, he noted that Fortune named Billings as 'the number one small city in attracting business.'"
So walkability and active transportation are vital to a community. They are important for so many reasons in a community, and continued support for them is important.
Many years ago Alpena made a commitment to its bipath system, and I for one am glad it did. Our city benefits from it, and we need to keep and utilize that kind of asset.