Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The assumption of driving everywhere

Boy, I hate being up at 8:00 AM. I am not a morning person, and now I don't feel so bad about it. A recent study found that there really are “morning people” and “night people.” And the same study found out that night people were alert and productive more hours of the day, regardless of what time they actually got up and started working. So there. I may sleep late every day, but I'm getting plenty of work done.

Why am I bringing up this gripe about being up early? Because I am at a conference on campus at 8:00 AM this morning, and it's making me grumpy. But this conference is the lead-in to my topic today: Even groups that promote physical activity as an important part of preventing obesity and its accompanying health problems assume everyone will be driving everywhere.

For a number of years, I have been working with a statewide group on overweight and obesity issues. The Wisconsin Partnership on Activity and Nutrition (WIPAN) is a CDC-funded effort to address these issues. Today this coalition is meeting on campus with a UW group with a similar mission, WIPOD.

For the first few years I felt like my role in WIPAN was to show up and say, "How you construct your community affects physical activity!" Most of the people initially involved were public health professional and health researchers. They all knew that increased physical activity can prevent all sorts of health problems, but few seemed to connect our transportation choices and built environment with whether people were getting the recommended amount of physical activity. At the national level, the CDC and Surgeon General were just beginning to talk about the role of the built environment in facilitating or deterring physical activity.

I clearly remember the first time I heard a CDC researcher say that we needed to make our communities more walking and bicycling-friendly. It was at a national conference on walking and bicycling, and I wanted to shout, "Hallelujah!" During the Q&A period, I urged the speaker to take this message to policy makers, because, as I said at the time, "We can say that we need better walking and biking environments, but policy makers think, 'Oh, that's those lycra-clad, environmental, tree-hugging, freaks that want people to drive less.' Which is true, that's who we are, but it doesn't mean we are wrong. But when a respected public health professional or researcher says the same thing, more people are likely to listen."

Eventually, this message got through at both the national and state level, and because I had been pushing for the inclusion of this aspect of policy, they made me the Chair of the Community Design and Physical Activity Committee for WIPAN. We've worked on writing walking points and briefing papers for the local coalitions around the state on such issues as:

  • What is an MPO, and why should you care what they are doing?
  • How's your local MPO doing with regard to policies to improve physical activity?
  • How can you get involved with Safe Routes to School?
  • What is Complete Streets, and how do you get your local community to adopt this policy?
  • etc.

So, today I was asked to attend this conference to represent WIPAN in a breakout session on the built environment. Because I registered late, the woman who confirmed my registration emailed me to say that, "All the parking permits have been issued, so you'll have to find parking on your own." I emailed back that not only was I not worried about finding a place to park my bike, but I lived within 1/2 mile of the conference site.

I suppose that my answer was unnecessarily snarky - she didn't know that transportation within the campus area really isn't an issue for me - but what struck me was that there is an assumption that everyone at this conference will be arriving car. Here I was about to talk about getting people to be more physically active via walking, biking, and transit, and there is no thought at all about giving participants information on getting to the conference without driving.

Yes, obviously, many people were coming from out of town, so I don't expect them to bike from Green Bay or Milwaukee, but there was NO information for anyone about alternatives to driving to campus. There could have been information on parking off-site and taking the many buses that pass within 1/4 mile of the site. Or even how to walk from the recommended hotel - which is also a short walk from the conference.

This lack of any "directions," except driving directions, to destinations is unbelievably common. On a number of occasions I have asked for transit or biking directions to a destination, both in Madison and other cities, and been met with a blank stare or dead silence.

This is not just a health issue, but also a social and economic justice issue, because people without cars may be trying to access destinations, events, and resources. I hope that more organizers, business owners, and convention and visitors bureaus will make an effort to provide transportation information for people not driving to the destination.