Comedian Ellen DeGeneres was once quoted as saying, “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 now, and we don’t know where the heck she is!” Ellen’s grandmother must live in a pretty walkable neighborhood. But not all neighborhoods, communities or even cities are.
Transportation for America rated Las Vegas the sixth-most dangerous city in America for pedestrians. If you watch the news on any given day, you would agree that many of our communities are unsafe to walk in. Older adults have a higher rate of pedestrian injuries and fatalities than any other age group because, among other reasons, they take longer to cross the street, have a slower reaction time and are more vulnerable to the severity of an injury.
The sad irony is that walking is important to our health and is considered the most common, least expensive, easiest way to be physically active. There are two basic reasons that people walk. The first is recreation, which includes walking for daily exercise. The second, though not a common practice in Southern Nevada, is active transport.
Active transport is physical activity you may get while completing another task such as walking to the grocery store, work, school or the bank. Incorporating active transport into daily living is great for overall health and fitness. Research shows, however, that most people are willing to walk for active transport only if the distance is less than a half-mile. For this reason, Las Vegas poses some unique challenges for people desiring to walk as a form of transportation.
What makes a city safe to walk in? There is a well-known index in the research community called “walkability.” Walkability tells us how conducive an area is to walking and performing activities of daily life. There are several factors that can encourage or prevent walking as a suitable form of transportation within a community. Many of these factors revolve around how walker-friendly the streets are. High walkability features include a good mix of residential, retail, restaurants, schools and entertainment within close proximity to each other.
Cities such as New York or San Francisco are a walker’s paradise. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is an example of “urban sprawl,” an uncoordinated, spread-out growth of residential communities far from local businesses usually requiring the use of automobiles for transport.
Other factors that affect walkability include posted street speeds; shaded areas for walking; access to public transit; available sidewalks; crosswalks with sufficient distance in between (less than a quarter-mile to a half-mile); street connectivity; and limited entry points.
Personal safety is also a barrier to walking and explains why many people live in gated communities. However, if a community has only one entry point and many of the streets don’t connect, there are few direct routes (“as the crow flies”). Instead, you have to walk all the way around the community, making it difficult to get where you are going.
Dr. Courtney Coughenour, a local public health expert in walkability, recently conducted a study in four Las Vegas communities. In her findings, the top four barriers to walkability in those communities were lack of shade (50 percent), poor land use mix (39 percent), poor street connectivity (32 percent) and poor access to transit (27 percent). Coughenour offers great advice for anyone who is retiring, downsizing their home (newly empty nest) or relocating and wants to stay physically active. Find a community with high walkability features, including:
n Close proximity (walking distance) to retail, food and entertainment
n Few high-speed streets
n Adequate number of crosswalks
n Numerous sidewalks
n High street connectivity
n Shaded areas (desert trees)
n Opportunities for a “chance encounter” (meeting people and creating social ties)
n Access to transit (which many Las Vegas age-restricted communities lack)
n Lack of single-entry communities
If you are not planning to move anytime soon and don’t live in a walkable neighborhood, find a good social network and create ways to be more active. Or consider a backup plan, such as that of comedian Steven Wright, who says, “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”
Annie R. Lindsay is an associate professor and exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She conducts research and programming in adult fitness, physical activity, body image and childhood obesity prevention. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.