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Activate Scottsbluff-Gering: an opportunity to encourage walking and biking and improve community health

October 28, 2016

Where you live today can be an all-too-accurate indicator of how healthy you’ll be.

This statement from the U.S. Surgeon General sums up something that has long been bothering me about American society – something that bothered me enough in my younger days to go to graduate school to learn about land use planning.

Post-World-War-II, Americans have embraced with open arms the conveniences of the personal car. And why wouldn’t we? Cars makes life easier in a lot of ways!

However, our love affair with the automobile has influenced our policies and shaped the way our cities have been built, to the exclusion of other forms of transportation. It’s very easy to drive places, but often very difficult to walk or ride a bike to run daily errands. (Watch this video for a summary of factors affecting US transportation and development patterns as compared to Europe. See here for a column I wrote in 2011 for the Star-Herald on my walk/bike experience in Sweden.)

If you take a walk around, you’ll notice that modern-built businesses are well-connected to roads and have more-then-ample parking lots, but that sidewalk infrastructure is often unpleasant, disjointed, or missing entirely. Parking lots are car-centric zones where people walking to the front door have to watch out or risk being run over. (An exception is businesses located in older buildings, like our historic downtowns, which were designed for pedestrians before the dominance of the automobile.)

One practice I find particularly galling in terms of the public heath message conveyed: the number of businesses that put smoking receptacles in a prominent place near the front door, yet bicycle parking, if it exists, is often relegated to the back 40.

And it’s not just the way businesses are built that affect our activity level. Residential neighborhoods discourage day-to-day physical activity when they are located too far away from shops or schools to make walking practical, when they are built without sidewalks, or when they are designed with winding streets with few cross-connections feeding into busy “collector streets” that make for a roundabout journey with difficult crossings on foot. If you’re curious about the walkability of your neighborhood, enter your address at the real estate website Walkscore. (My house, built in 1932 on a grid street near downtown Scottsbluff, got a score of 63.)

The sum-total of all of these infrastructure planning decisions, coupled with various other practices of American life, has fueled an epidemic of inactivity that has contributed to crisis-level incidences of chronic health conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease that threaten to erase longevity gains Americans have built from decades of public health improvements. To cite one measure: a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a reduced incidence of overweight, obesity and diabetes in more walkable neighborhoods as compared to less walkable neighborhoods.

I could go on and on about this topic, but I need to get to the point:

I’m thrilled that there is a movement stirring locally to begin to address some of these issues!

Specifically, CDC grant funds are enabling the Panhandle Public Health District to jump-start community conversations about walking and biking as transportation options – AKA “active transportation.” If you have any thoughts about improving the walkability of your neighborhood, of encouraging businesses to make their entrances friendlier to people on bikes and on foot, if you’re curious about the status of planned pathways and trails, if you’re concerned about ordinances and development, if you worry about kids walking or biking to school, if you want to save money on transportation costs, if you want to lose a few pounds, THIS CONVERSATION IS FOR YOU!

The city of Sidney already hosted a conversation event (I wrote about it here). Now it’s Scottsing’s turn. With support from PPHD, the Activate Scottsbluff-Gering committee –  which consists of planning, health and marketing professionals as well as community organizers and volunteers (including yours truly) – has planned two conversation events:

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Activate Scottsbluff-Gering Open House
Thursday, November 3, 4 to 7 p.m.

Stop by the Guadalupe Center (1102 12th Ave, Scottsbluff) anytime during the event to learn about walking and biking opportunities and to give your input about what changes you’d like to see in your neighborhood or in the tri-cities area at large. Light snacks will be provided, as well as a Spanish-language translator. Planned booths include, to date:

  • Panhandle Public Health District (info on the Activate Scottsbluff-Gering process, the link between active transit and health)
  • Scotts Bluff County transit (info and feedback request on proposed regular Gering-to-Scottsbluff bus route)
  • North Platte NRD (demonstration of recreation mapping app)
  • Regional West Medical Center (info on health benefits of exercise)
  • City of Scottsbluff planning department (Scottsbluff city ordinances and development plans)
  • City of Scottsbluff parks & rec (current & planned pathways in Scottsbluff, including the Highway 26 pedestrian bridge and mountain bike trail in Riverside Park)
  • City of Scottsbluff Police Department (maps of areas around schools, to discuss traffic flow)
  • Western Nebraska Bicycling Club / Nebraska Bicycling Alliance (examples of “commuter bicycles,” info on club activities and membership)
  • There will be a “sidewalk game” to make learning about city ordinances fun, a “feedback booth” for gathering information, and a game about bicycle traffic law.
  • And more! Many invitations have been sent to institutions and community groups to participate – if you know of or are part of a group or entity that should be represented, contact Jessica Davies at the Panhandle Public Health District: 308-487-3600 Ext. 101

Update: while the City of Gering was unable to have a booth at the event, Gering is definitely involved in this initiative. There are some cool things happening in Gering, too, like potential bike paths into downtown as part of downtown revitalization, and the pathway through Legacy of the Plains Museum to Scotts Bluff National Monument, the planning for which is underway again.

Activate Scottsbluff-Gering Summit
Thursday, November 17, 1 to 7 p.m.

Register for this half-day event, also at the Guadalupe Center (registration info coming soon), and participate in facilitated conversations that will build upon the ideas gathered at the Open House. There will be a panel discussion, small-group discussions and large-group idea-sorting activities. The overall goal is to develop an action plan to improve community health through increased walking and biking. Summit participants will prioritize ideas and identify ways to move forward with these ideas. A meal will be provided.

SCB Citizen’s Thoughts

As long as I have this bloggy pulpit, I might as well use it to gather my ideas in a format where potentially interested parties could have a gander at them. Please comment here and/or attend the open house if there are ideas that resonate with you.

First, my personal philosophy:

I want to burn as many calories as I can in my daily activities so I don’t have to “exercise.”

  • It’s why I often walk or ride my bike instead of driving.
  • It’s why I have an old-fashioned push-reel lawnmower instead of a self-propelled gas mower.
  • It’s why I knead bread and mix cookie dough by hand instead of using electric appliances.
  • It’s why I rake leaves instead of using a leaf blower.
  • It’s why I hand-shovel the driveway instead of using a snowblower.

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Yes, I also sometimes walk, run, hike or bike recreationally, but my foundation of “calorie-burning everyday activities” remains the bedrock of where I consistently get exercise, without which I’m convinced I would be less healthy than I currently am.

Here are some things I would like to see happen locally, in no particular order other than that’s the order in which I thought of them as I was writing. Perhaps a few things on this list can become reality.

  • If city building code requires business development to have minimum car parking spaces, it should also have minimum bike parking spaces and a clear pedestrian path to the front door. Bike parking should be font-and-center “rock star parking.” (Want to know where there are existing bike racks? See this map. This is a work in progress. New submissions encouraged!)
  • A volunteer community of citizens who walk/wheel regularly (maybe some “walking clubs?”) and who help educate residents and business owners and notify the city about code violations that hinder neighborhood walkability (e.g., snow clearance, broken sidewalks, overhanging trees, cars blocking the sidewalk).
  • A color-coded map of recommended bicycle routes through Gering, Terrytown and Scottsbluff, with the colors indicating how easy or difficult those routes are.
  • A Bike to Work Day event each year.
  • Better path and sidewalk connectivity throughout the tri-state area. More sidewalks, wider sidewalks, and a complete network of curb cuts. Especially better and more numerous ped/bike crossings of the river, railroad tracks and highway! Get that once-proposed pathway bridge between Riverside Park and Scotts Bluff National Monument to happen!!
  • A bike playground (see link for explanation).
  • A bicycle scavenger hunt event involving businesses/entities to which people might ride ordinarily. Participating businesses/entities would sponsor an activity riders would complete to collect points. The event would invite new riders to get used to riding as transportation and familiarize them with bike routes. (Something similar is already taking place with the Western Nebraska Bicycling Club’s Candy Corn Grab.)
  • A community ed class on safe bicycling.
  • A community ed class for “bicycle-safe driver” certification.
  • A bikeshare / bike rental business.
  • City inspectors focusing enforcement attention first on broken sidewalks with trip-hazard potholes or elevation gaps rather than a simple crack. With the inspection letter, include recommended contractors and, where appropriate, information about protecting the health of shade trees whose roots have cracked the sidewalk.
  • Encourage more shade tree planting along walking routes and in parking lots.
  • Adopt a “complete streets” policy so that whenever road repair or construction happens, the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists are considered in addition to the needs of automobile drivers. This would include adding curb cuts or moving sign posts and fire hydrants that block the sidewalk, for example.
  • Encourage “walking school busses.”
  • Return the “yield to pedestrian in crosswalk” signs to downtown Scottsbluff and use temporary signage like this in school zones when students are out and about.
  • Encourage walk/bike commuters to use Strava’s “commute” feature to collect data for city planners. Do bicycle traffic counts. How can we make good plans without good data?
  • Develop an education and incentive campaign for people to walk or bike downtown. This will help address some parking concerns if fewer people are parking downtown.
  • Create an online map of the Monument Valley Pathway. My early-in-the-learning-curve 7-year-old blog post on the pathway remains one of my most popular posts, and people tell me they are glad to have found it because there is no other information out there.
  • “Infill development” that revitalizes previously developed land with existing utility and transportation connections should be incentivized – NOT new development on undeveloped land that requires all-new construction. Not only does this help walkability, but this lowers long-term infrastructure maintenance burden (read: lower tax burden) because there is a more compact, efficient utility and transportation system.
  • A dream: make the city responsible for sidewalk infrastructure like it is for streets. Can you imagine what a mess the roads would be if every homeowner and business was responsible for maintaining the street in front of their property? That’s the situation we have for sidewalks. Why should pedestrian transportation infrastructure be treated so differently from automobile transportation infrastructure?
  • Law enforcement focus on cyclist and driver education about the rules of the road (key points: right of bike to be in road, 3-foot passing law, bikes must travel in the same direction as cars.)

Whew! And probably my brain isn’t emptied on this topic yet. I may add more. 🙂

Disclaimer: while I’m on the committee planning the Activate Scottsbuff-Gering events, this blog post is my own opinion and may not represent the views of the committee as a whole.

Copyright 2016 by Katie Bradshaw

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