#WalkBikeForward : Thoughts on Active Communities, 20 years later

Ted Eytan, MD, MS, MPH, family physician in Washington, DC.

I was recently interviewed for this piece about active communities by the team at Alta Planning + Design: #WalkBikeForward with Ted Eytan – AP+D. Below are the unedited version of my comments (because disk space is cheap and I can have as much space as I want on my own feed). Enjoy, comments welcome.

+What have been the biggest breakthroughs for active communities, including your own, in last 20 years?

If we’re looking at Washington, DC, it’s the change from a most UNwalkable place to one of the most (the most?) walkable in the United States. In 1996, the DC Metro was being finished. In 2016, it’s undergoing tremendous and painful repairs, and now, we have other modes that we can use to keep us moving. In 2010, DC also legislated complete streets, so it’s now the norm for every new development (and there are a lot of those) to accompany a new, healthy streetscape. Finally, bikeshare. Version 1.0 (pre-Alta) was a failure, Version 2.0 (Capital Bikeshare) – huge success. I am personally CarFree and BikeFree – it’s all sharing.

This is the complete street that the Center for Total Health now sits on. It says everything about the new millennium:

Photo Friday: Healing H Street, NE with Complete Streets, Washington, DC USA

+What forces/actions/innovations have made these breakthroughs possible?

From my recent reading, the automobile culture that preceeded this renaissance is really a historical anomaly, rather than a new normal. A generation of people who grew up with gridlock and saw the health of their communities decline have “spoken” through their reduction in vehicle miles traveled per person (VMT) and disinterest in car ownership, for example, this statistic from the US Census:

Car-Free Generation Y, Washington, DC #ActiveTransportation

As I read in Sam Schwartz book, VMT reductions are also a result of the change in driver license laws – interestingly, much like cigarettes addict adults at a very young age, apparently driver licenses do the same! As people are getting licensed later due to new laws, less are taking up driving:

Just Read: Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars

The other innovation, I think, is an understanding of the lack of innovation that’s come from prioritizing personal responsibility versus environmental modification. The ecological model that’s spawned a better understanding of the social determinants of health is only as “old” as 2002, and with it the awareness that Transportation is about health AND moving people and things, not just the latter.

In other words, we’re learning that what happens around a person in the way their environment is designed is much more influential in their health than the personal choices they make, or that the choices are often shaped by the environments.

#activetransportation our cities are changing SharrowsDC #NoMazing 🚴 ❤️ DC ✌️
#activetransportation our cities are changing @SharrowsDC #NoMazing 🚴 ❤️ DC ✌️ (View on Flickr.com)

+What have been the biggest surprises to you?

How little of the car-paradigm is worth holding on to.

In my own experience, I moved to Washington, DC, in 2007, without my car, first time being without one since learning to drive. And, I immediately adapted. As they are called “deprivation studies” where people’s cars are taken away show the same behavior, almost immediately (within 1 week). Every assumption I had about owning a depreciable asset sitting out on the street with a $9000/year (on average in the US) maintenance bill, quickly went out the window. I can see a world where a lot more people have this experience.

We can untangle the fallacy of motordom as quickly as it was created…because motordom is not really compatible with the way humans interact with the world and each other.

That said, I live in a place where being carfree is more normal, so in other places, there will need to be some intentionality (and leadership) about multimodal transportation and active communities.

+Looking in your crystal ball, what do active communities look like in 2036?

They look healthy, sustainable, diverse, compassionate, and abundant, of course 😃 Actually active communities look like that already, they just need to be more evenly distributed.

+What are the new breakthroughs we need?

I think we probably need more societal leaders with more knowledge about the importance of active communities and the ways they are created. It should not be taken for granted that communities will become this way by the will of the people – real leadership is needed, and at a broader level than transportation engineers. Doctors have an important role to play as the stewards of health.

There’s probably a role in continuously improving design, so that we go from unsafe to safe, unwalkable to walkable, walkable to livable, livable to delightful, in the ways our roads become complete streets, and then places.

+How do ensure that everyone (race, income, gender, age, urban, rural & suburban) has an opportunity to enjoy an active community?

By ensuring that everyone has an opportunity :).

As an example, I have gone to some events in DC around open data and transportation, and the audience is fairly non-diverse and not focused on the broader needs of the community, because they don’t know what they are. As a result, the input that our transportation agencies receive can lend to the healthy getting healthier. There should be a good connection between the health department and the transportation department. Transportation is about access and health as much as it is about mobility (quoting Sam Schwartz).

+How have active communities changed your own life?

I can’t imagine living without one. I depend on the flexibility and neurochemical stimulation that walking meetings provide in my work day, as well as the non-motorized transport option I take every day on my 2 mile trip to and from work. I frequently engage in “sidewalk diplomacy” on the complete streets of Washington, DC – the impromptu meetings that happen where the diagonals intersect – Thanks L’Enfant!

+Which are the communities and people that have had their lives most affected by active communities?

Washington, DC, for sure, although it’s unevenly distributed, I think you have ready access to descriptions of other communities that have impacted so I won’t try and recall all of the examples here.

+When did you realize the active communities movement really had legs?

Well…speaking of Jeff Olson and Alta Planning – the day I met him, in 2013, in New York, he agreed to go on a walking meeting with me, and we ended up taking a break in front of the flatiron building, and what we both witnessed amazed us.

We were watching citibike after citibike careen past us and talked to people who told us how this meant everything to them. What was pretty awesome for me was watching Jeff watch this. I think he hadn’t had the chance to reflect on what he’d one. I’ll never forget that day.

Of course I took photos 😃

Designed to Move 30105
Designed to Move 30105 (View on Flickr.com)

A Walk Through New York – Designed to Move – is this our 1968 moment in creating active cities?

Ted Eytan, MD