Tipped off by a story last week in the Ventura County Star, I learned about an ambitious walker named George Throop who is traveling from Vancouver, Washington to Washington, D.C. on foot in the hopes that his example will inspire others to "Walk 20 Minutes Today." Guessing that anyone who had already walked through three states would have something to say about walkability, I caught up with George and his current walking buddy (Colin Leath from Santa Barbara) over the weekend.
First, the obvious question: why walking? George explained that he chose walking because it was something that pretty much anyone can do; it doesn't take expensive equipment or special training to walk. He also wanted to keep his message direct. Instead telling people to do something vague like "exercise more," George decided to focus on one simple lifestyle change: walk 20 minutes a day for better health.
Then there's the community-building aspect of walking. People who walk in their neighborhoods every day get to know their community and their neighbors. Their eyes are out on the street instead of inside houses or cars, leading to safer communities. Plus, placing an emphasis on walking helps to generate demand for pedestrian infrastructure and the political will that it takes to push for pedestrian-friendly communities.
George is realistic about what walking can accomplish in terms of people's health. He acknowledges that walking 20 minutes a day won't prevent all health problems, but he believes it can increase awareness about preventative health. He hopes that walking 20 minutes each day will create some momentum in people's lives, moving them towards a healthier lifesytle overall.
So how is it out there? George says that walking conditions have been mostly good so far. Many neighborhoods have sidewalks, particularly in middle class areas (though they often lack curb ramps). However, in poorer neighborhoods the sidewalks are often run down--or nonexistent. Interestingly, sidewalks are also missing from many of the the wealthier communities George has traveled through ("maybe they're inside the gates?").
Some of the most challenging walks have been along rural roads, such as Box Canyon Road in Simi Valley, which aren't built to allow pedestrian access. Highway 1 along the California coast, with its many blind curves, was also a dangerous stretch--although George points out that the good thing about walking is that you can generally hear cars coming early enough to get out of their way. However, George explains that freeways have been the biggest barrier to walkability he has encoutered. He's often confronted by freeways without a pedestrian crossings, forcing him to take long and time-consuming detours.
With his neon yellow safety vest and bright signs advertising his trip, distracted driving hasn't been much of a problem for George yet. On the contrary, he is often the distraction. George explains that drivers regularly veer towards him while trying read his signs, quickly correcting themselves when they realize what they're doing.
Not surprisingly, both George and Colin agree that walking across the country is different that traveling by other modes. George explained that the more you slow down, the greater the experience--which is partly why he has moved the finish date of his trip from June to November. Colin, who has already completed a cross-country bike trip, finds walking more social than other modes. He notices that people are more likely to stop you with questions--or even join the walk for a block or two--when you travel at "human speed."
This week you can find George and Colin walking through Los Angeles along Wilshire Boulevard. After they cross they city, they'll cut north to Glendale and follow Interstate 10 east to Phoenix, El Paso, and eventually the White House. George is hoping he'll be able to convince President Obama (and maybe the rest of the first family) to finish the last 20 minutes of the walk with him.
You can learn more about George and his walk on his website: http://www.enjoythewalk.org/.