Imagine Austin priority program 6: Create a Healthy Austin

 This post is part of a series on Imagine Austin's priority programs, in light of Austin's current CodeNEXT rewrite process. View the entire series here.

There is increasing evidence that moderate exercise, like walking, can extend life expectancy and reduce chronic disease.  In many places around the world people get their recommended 10,000 steps, or 30 minutes of walking, simply by going about their daily lives.  That might include walking to the bus, running errands by bike, strolling to the park, etc.

What would Austin look like if we could get our daily exercise simply by going about our daily lives?

Most of Austin was built around the assumption that people would be driving.  To image a more connected Austin look at our older neighborhoods, where we still have the smaller, connected streets and a mix of uses that make walking, biking, scootering, etc. a safe and easy way to get around.  

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Think about Hyde Park, where I grew up, with its tree-lined streets, compact blocks, and destinations within the neighborhood. Long before I was old enough to drive I could get myself to the post office, grocery store, coffee shop, video rental (yes, pre-NetFlix), park, swimming pool, museum, bus stops, and a variety of restaurants.  That is not possible in most neighborhoods.  Newer neighborhoods typically have sidewalks along every street, but non-residential uses like shops, restaurants, and community services tend to be located far away, surrounded by parking lots.  And bus service is very difficult to provide when housing is spread out along streets that do not connect.


We have the opportunity to improve public health by creating a city that is compact and connected, where people can walk, ride bikes, or roll to the places they want to go.  In the recent Mobility Talks survey 76% of Austinites said they travel alone in their car, but almost the same number (74%) said they wished they had better options to bike, walk, or ride public transportation.  Can you imagine what it would be like to walk to dinner with your family?


All Austinites should have easy access to healthy food, medical care, and services.


To do that we need to connect neighborhoods to amenities and transportation options.  The City of Austin has made progress putting sidewalks, ADA accommodations, and bike lanes on the ground, while planning for more. We have a Sidewalk Master Plan, which shows we have $1 billion in missing sidewalks and $15 million/year needed to repair existing ones.  We have some Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons, but many roads still do not have safe places to cross, sometimes for more than a mile!  


Our current sidewalk program is out of money.  We can build sidewalks around every school, park, and transit stop, but only if we make that vision a priority.


We have a Bicycle Master Plan, which envisions a connected network of on and off-street (urban trail) bike facilities, but we need $150 million to build it.  We have some transit, but people often note they want more frequent transit to get where they are going reliably.


Many Austinites are already walking, biking, rolling to their destinations, but without a connected network (sidewalks, bike lanes, and transit all working together) those trips are difficult and often dangerous.  In 2015, 102 family members, friends, and co-workers died on Austin’s streets, 1/3 of them were pedestrians.  2015 was our most dangerous year to date on Austin’s roads, but 2016 is shaping up to be just as heartbreaking.  Recently a 3 year old child was run over and killed while crossing Cameron Road (in a crosswalk) with his family.  A week later, a 14 year old boy was hit and killed while riding his bike on Spicewood Springs Road.  


Our children should not be dying on our streets.  


Our City Council has adopted a Vision Zero policy which notes that traffic crashes are preventable and any death on our streets is too many.  It’s an adopted goal of Imagine Austin and needs to be implemented.


We can continue to encourage people to make transportation choices that improve their health, but as long as people are dying on our streets that is a hard sell.  Imagine Austin envisions a healthy Austin where all community members have safe and healthy ways to get to services, healthy food sources, and medical care.  


Our transportation network should be built for all ages and abilities in a way that promotes healthy living and provides equitable access for all. While Austin has made much progress in adopting policies, we still have a long way to go until we see results.


To learn more about livable, safe cities for all people, check out Livable Cities.

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