These streets are made for walking: how Oklahoma City overturned car culture

November 22, 2015

Zurich is one of the best. London is pretty good but could be better. Johannesburg is terrible. Bogota has taken it seriously. Oklahoma has made significant improvements.

 

The walkability of cities can significantly affect the health – physical and mental – of its citizens. A brisk 20-minute walk a day reduces risk of premature death. One UK doctor who started organising walks for patients with chronic health problems recorded that 29% were able to give up antidepressants and 92.5% said their mood had improved. LSE research found that people who walked regularly were likely to weigh less than those who go to the gym. “The results provide an argument for a campaign to promote walking,” concluded the research. “Recommending that people walk briskly more often is a cheap and easy policy option.”

 

Unfortunately, most cities around the world have not been designed with walking in mind. Susan Claris, a transport consultant at urban designers Arup, says cities around the world need to make walking the first consideration when planning neighbourhoods. 

 

The cities that are cleaning up their act

 

“We’re crying out for a recognition of walking as a mode of transport in itself, and all the benefits that brings,” she says. “It’s such a simple thing, but it hasn’t been glamorous enough. There isn’t anyone up there as a walking spokesperson, in the way that there is for cycling. We need to literally give it a bit of street cred.”

Claris walks 3.5 miles to work everyday, which takes her 50 minutes. “What I always find surprising is how much thinking you do when you are walking, without even meaning to,” she says. “I always get ideas. On the tube you see people slump – physically and mentally.”

 

Apart from the obvious health and environmental benefits, Claris says the economic benefits of walking often surprise people. “Traditionally shopkeepers and planners have said we mustn’t deter car drivers,” she says. “But, actually, people who arrive on foot stay for longer, make more visits and spend more money.” And there are economic benefits for employers. “If employees walk to work they tend to be more alert and have fewer days off sick,” says Claris.

 

In Bogota, Colombia, former mayor Enrique Peñalosa led a wide-ranging campaign to make the city better for walking, primarily to make it more inclusive for its poorest citizens. “For the poor, the only alternative to television for their leisure time is the public space,” he says. “For this reason, high-quality public pedestrian space, and parks in particular, are evidence of a true democracy at work.”

 

There’s also a public safety argument: as the number of people walking in cities increases exponentially, crime reduces. “In places like Johannesburg, if nobody is out there walking it becomes a hostile environment,” says Claris. “The more people there are out walking the safer it is for everybody else. People always talk about the vitality of town centres; that’s people.”

 

One of the best cities in the world for walking is Zurich, with 46% of trips made on foot. In London, which is a fairly walkable city, 21% of trips are walked. “London is good but has the potential to be so much better,” says Claris.

Oklahoma City: ‘life now revolves around people instead of cars’

 

So what are the barriers? Many cities around the world were designed after the advent of the car, with the convenience of vehicles first in mind. This is particularly true of US cities, with sprawling their suburbs and eight-lane highways. 

 

 

 

 

But one great example of a city that has switched its point of view from behind a steering wheel to the sidewalks is Oklahoma. Mayor Mick Cornett started an ambitious campaign when he found his home on a list of America’s fattest cities. He declared that the city was going on a diet and challenged Oklahomans to lose a million pounds in weight over a year, which they did.

 

How do you get a city to lose weight?

 

“We’d created a city where life happened around being in your car,” says Cornett. “We have one of the largest cities in the United States [by area] and we never properly prioritised pedestrian behaviour.” The mayor wants to change the city so the next generation doesn’t assume they will travel everywhere by car.

 

Cornett asked citizens to vote for a tax to fund a series of public works that would encourage less sedentary lifestyles. “And so the citizens have funded more sidewalks, more jogging and biking trails, senior wellness centres, new gymnasiums for kids,” says the mayor. “Perhaps most notably [we now have] a completely different infrastructure that is built to be more pedestrian-friendly, where life revolves around people instead of cars.” 

 

A new park is about to break ground in the centre of town, and a streetcar system is being installed. “Public transit is still not something we do well,” the mayor admits. “You need a lot of riders. And if people don’t live downtown you can’t offer an efficient transit system.” But more people are living in the centre of Oklahoma City now, including the mayor himself. “In 20 years’ [the] downtown’s come from a place where virtually no one lived to a vibrant mixed community,” he says. “Streets have been narrowed, more highly landscaped, it’s designed now to be walkable, as opposed to seeing how fast we can move cars around.”

 

Cornett says that the main difference between Oklahoma City and other places around the world that have recognised this challenge is that “we’ve figured out a way to pay for these changes”. Citizen buy-in was key, and secured by the initial awareness campaign asking its residents to go on a diet. The mayor tells the story in a popular TED Talk that has been viewed 1.3m times. The campaign has transformed the city. “Highly educated 20-somethings that are moving to Oklahoma City are fuelling an incredibly vibrant economy,” he says.

 

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