Surgeon general says Americans need to walk more, and U.S. needs more walkable neighborhoods

should spend more time walking, and communities should be equipped with
walking areas to make that possible, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
said in a report released on Wednesday.

“Maybe this sounds like obvious advice, a health tip right up there
with admonitions to eat right and wear sunblock,” Emily Badger writes for The Washington Post.
“But for much of the last century, the federal government has backed a
different idea—cars running on cheap fuel and fast asphalt should carry
us everywhere—that has largely proved incompatible with walking.” (Library of Congress photo: Thomas Circle in Washington, D.C., in 1920, when most of the traffic was pedestrian)

The University of Virginia‘s
Peter Norton, who has studied the history of transportation, told
Badger, “If the surgeon general had called for people to exercise more,
that would be just another predictable announcement. But he called for
walking. That puts him up against a long history of official
discouragement of walking.”

One of the main problems is
that nearly one-third of Americans live in neighborhoods that lack
sidewalks, Badger writes. “The federal government subsidized the
construction of postwar suburban subdivisions so heavily dependent on
the car they had little use for sidewalks. The government paved the
highways that enabled people to live there, and kept low the gas taxes
that made commuting 30 miles a day affordable. Government engineers
came, over time, to think of roads as the domain solely of
automobiles—and of pedestrians as an impediment to them.”

problem is that many people live far enough away from work, grocery
stores and other conveniences that walking is not possible, Badger
writes. Also, narrow rural roads can discourage walkers. In an age where cars take people everywhere they need to
go, many people have grown out of the habit of having to walk much more
than 300 to 400 feet to get anywhere.

Murthy told
reporters, “In the last few decades we have lost touch with physical
activity.” Badger writes, “This is true in many ways, in school days
that no longer include recess, or in jobs that no longer demand physical
labor. But it is primarily true in how we’ve built (or rebuilt) the
world around us. And research is starting to show the health
consequences. Communities designed around more compact, walkable street
grids—places that have what the surgeon general calls
‘connectivity’—have been correlated in research with reduced rates of
obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease (they also have fewer
fatal car crashes, another public health problem). One study of a
million residents in Toronto found that people in less walkable
neighborhoods were more likely to develop diabetes.”

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