Walkable cities prioritize people over roads

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By MAGGIE GEORGE                                              
Capital News Service

LANSING – Business, environment and transportation experts are increasingly interested in walkable cities, and a new study bolsters their benefits.

Such communities promote alternative fuels, reliable public transit and more green space for healthy recreation. They even promote cleaner air, which aligns with a recent Columbia University study that reports lower exposure to air pollution reduces mortality in all populations.

A walkable city prioritizes people over roads and parking lots by ensuring they can safely access everything they need without a motorized vehicle, said Ross Gavin, director of urban land use, infrastructure and transportation at the Michigan Environmental Council. 

Affordable, high-density neighborhoods, mixed-use development and support for multiple forms of transportation, such as walking, scooters, bikes and public transit improve walkability, Gavin said.

Transportation produces a lot of pollution, Gavin said. “Reducing our dependence on single-occupancy vehicles is essential for reducing our carbon footprint.” 

Alternative transportation fuels like electricity, hydrogen fuel cells, and propane can make a big impact in disadvantaged communities. Poor air quality in these areas creates poor health in communities that may struggle to have access to healthcare, said Janet Geissler, mobility specialist at the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The Columbia University study reported that Black Americans are exposed to higher annual levels of air pollutants. The study found that “higher-income Black persons, low-income White persons, and low-income Black persons may benefit more from lower (exposure to air pollutants) than higher-income White persons”.

“If you can get to the root of the problem by improving air quality by doing things like providing cleaner transportation options, you can help affect a lot of the social outcomes,” Geissler said.

The Michigan Environmental Council advocates for policies that improve the health of individuals, and that reductions of carbon dioxide emissions improves air quality and health.

“Walkable cities create an environment for people to improve their physical and mental wellbeing,” Gavin said. “Public transit and walkability generally is a matter of better public health, better planet health, better pocketbook health, and better on equity.”

The council also advocates for bike trails, sidewalks, bus stops and crosswalks over more roads and other support for cars, said Beau Brockett, communications coordinator at the Michigan Environmental Council. “Usually a better city means that it’s better environmentally as well,” he said. 

Good access to transit benefits businesses, said Geissler. “If they’re located near a transit stop like a transportation center, people can use transit to commute rather than having to drive their own vehicle.”

Walkable cities thrive when transit makes it easy to interact with all elements of the design, such as work, shopping, healthcare and education, Geissler said.

Converting lanes into on-street, outdoor dining spaces spurs economic development, Gavin said. 

Gavin also said that walkable cities eliminate the need for infrastructure that caters to the use of individual vehicles, such as parking structures and vehicle lanes. 

“Parking lot conversion back to green space, be it parks or more natural spaces, increase quality of life, promote healthy living and help with mitigating stormwater runoff which is a key concern in making communities more resilient in the face of climate change,” Gavin said. 

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