This week, in the midst of a government shutdown, at least one thing was moving and shaking in Washington: the first-ever Walking Summit. Sponsored by Kaiser Permanente, America Walks, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and several other national groups, the conference sold out more than a month before showtime, the enthusiastic response surprising even the organizers. Today, despite the shutdown, many of the 400 participants are walking the Hill, meeting with their lawmakers to advocate for federal support for walking — though many meetings have been canceled, especially on the Senate side.
Summit participants showcased the diversity of the movement for movement. There were sports medicine physicians who prescribe walking as medicine — it’s free, it has no harmful side effects, and it works to heal a surprising number of ailments. There was a city councilwoman from South Carolina who ran for office to help build safe, healthy, walkable neighborhoods. A “recovering couch potato” was there, with his own fitness program for other “out of shape, middle-aged” people.
A representative of the National PTA showed a touching picture of her young son taking a picture of her daughter as she discovered her own shadow — the magic that happens when families walk together instead of driving everywhere. The NAACP was there to bring a social justice and equity angle to the conversation about physical activity and the built environment. AARP is part of this movement, advocating for livable communities where seniors can age in place. The American Heart Association is involved, giving grants to active living campaigns.
But let’s get down to brass tacks: We’re one year into a two-year transportation bill that was devastating for walking and biking programs. It eliminated dedicated funding for Safe Routes to School and Recreational Trails, and it cut funding for active transportation by 33 percent, giving states the option of slicing off up to 50 percent of what was left. Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah have all made the very bad decision to do just that.
Sen. Barbara Boxer and others on the Hill have indicated that they’re pleased with the policy measures in MAP-21 and are less interested in revisiting policy in the next bill than they are in simply finding a way to stabilize the funding source. Active transportation advocates would beg to differ. They would like to see performance measures that bring real accountability for state DOTs, including a specific measure for walking and biking.
But will we really be debating — and passing — a new transportation reauthorization next year? Considering it took three years of extensions to pass the last one, the odds are long. Still, reformers are gearing up.
But Deb Hubsmith, founder of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, says before dealing with the reauthorization, they want to make the current bill work as well as it can.