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Clearing a path for walkers

You might call it de-inventing the wheel. In communities and workplaces across the United States, new groups are marching together to get Americans on their feet.

With six in 10 Americans classified as sedentary, walking advocates have vast opportunities and a daunting challenge. The programs that boost walking best take a two-legged approach, giving their target populations a reason to walk — a contest, an incentive or the camaraderie of a group — and removing obstacles that discourage walking, such as traffic hazards, distances from paths and appealing destinations, and lack of time.

As they work to improve infrastructure such as sidewalks, parks and trails, walking advocates are showing up at zoning hearings, seeking to relax the boundaries that have kept commercial zones — places to shop, linger and socialize — walled off from homes. They're lobbying state and local roadway authorities to change traffic patterns crafted to move motorists quickly and make them walker-friendly instead.

Here are a few initiatives that walking advocates praise.

  • u Safe routes to school: Thirty years ago, two-thirds of schoolchildren walked to school. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 13 percent do — and at a time when schools are cutting back on physical education. The Safe Routes to School Program was launched in 2005 to fund school districts' efforts to fix obstacles that discourage children and parents from getting to and from school on foot, and to launch programs that encourage it. The four-year budget of $612 million, so far, has been used to build and replace sidewalks; to install traffic signals; and to study how schools can be sited to increase the number of students who walk.
  • u King County, Wash.: The county that encompasses Seattle and many of its outlying communities is a pioneer in creating places where people walk to exercise, do errands and get to work. County Commissioner Ron Sims has made "walkability" the watchword in the renewal of downtown areas with large minority populations, pressing for zoning decisions that place moderate- and low-income housing within easy walking distance of stores, parks, trails and public transportation.

The county is dropping ordinances that long required a garage to be built and sold with every unit of housing, encouraging residents to live car-free. It is looking to buy a 35-mile stretch of closed railroad track to develop as a bicycle and walking trail. With an estimated 1.5 million people living along the track, "it's the kind of opportunity that can change the face of a region," says Larry Frank, a land-use researcher whom the county has consulted in devising its walker-friendly plans. Chino, Calif., is also considering "walkability" in its renovation and renewal plans.

u Lowry and Stapleton, Colo.: These two communities were able to start afresh with plans to encourage walking. Lowry was built on the site of a closed Air Force base and Stapleton on the site of the airport that Denver abandoned when it built Denver International.

In planning and building from the ground up, both communities are considered exemplars of a "new urbanism" — where neighborhood grids link homeowners to stores, restaurants, workplaces and public transport to downtown Denver via tree-lined sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly intersections. Walking groups abound, civic activity revolves around centrally located parks and recreation facilities, and "active living" is marketed by real estate agents. At Lowry, directions to shops and parks are posted in numbers of steps. New residents are welcomed with walking maps, pedometers and lists of walking activities. Many local businesses give patrons who show their pedometers a discount.

u America on the Move: This organization, which helps individuals, families and communities get more active, has created a "virtual community" of walkers. Dedicated to the premise that small changes in lifestyle — its program recommends an additional 2,000 steps per day as a goal — can make a big difference, America on the Move has established a registry that provides advice on pedometers and allows individuals to track and share their walking routes and progress in taking more steps per day. To date, 197,000 have registered and are tracking their daily steps.