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Walking Without Sidewalks

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in the Huffington Post on June 21, 2016

Having lived most of my life in New York City, it’s a fact of life that I can walk or bicycle pretty much anywhere I need to go. New York is regularly named the nation’s most walkable city, even if some neighborhoods are better for this than others. I ride the subway to work every day and might take an occasional taxi, but I mainly rely on my feet to get to and from my daily activities.

A lot of people elsewhere in New York State—and throughout the country—don’t have the same opportunity to walk everywhere and be physically active. I was recently in the Hudson Valley, meeting with health care, public health, and social service leaders in the region. It’s a huge area; Ulster County alone has roughly the same square mileage as the state of Rhode Island. As a result, people spend a lot of time in their cars. In most cases, the only option to get from one place to another is to drive. Primary care doctors may see patients at multiple clinics dozens of miles away from each other; social service agencies serve large catchment areas; and many of the suburban and rural areas lack sidewalks and safe places to walk. I heard more than once that you take your life in your hands if you try to walk or bicycle in many of the towns in the region.

I also visited a glaring exception: the Walkway Over the Hudson, a converted railroad bridge that opened nearly seven years ago. It’s a 1.2-mile park, 212 feet above the Hudson River, connecting Dutchess and Ulster counties. More than 500,000 people annually walk, bike, or run on the Walkway, making it one of the most-visited State parks in New York. It’s a tourist attraction that draws many people to the area, but it has also given local residents a safe, accessible space to be active.

When I visited, on a humid Thursday afternoon in mid-June, it felt alive: parents pushing young kids in strollers; couples walking their dogs; runners getting in their workouts; bicyclists whizzing by or just going for a leisurely ride; friends walking together; a few people in wheelchairs making their way across the bridge. There was a sense of freedom and there was constant movement because there are almost no benches on the Walkway. It isn’t a traditional street with sidewalks like we have in New York City; it’s a unique spot to take in beautiful views, get some fresh air, and get moving.

Taking a cue from the Walkway and others, the Rosendale Trestle has been brought back to life, too. When it first opened to rail traffic in 1872, it was the highest span bridge in the United States. It closed in 1977 and sat unused for decades. It reopened to the public in 2013, offering spectacular views and another spot for walkers, cyclists, cross-country skiers, and equestrians to safely traverse the Rondout Creek.

Not every community has an old rail line that can be transformed into a beautiful public recreation space. So communities are getting creative in other ways. Clinton County, in the North Country of New York State, while an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, recognized that many of its outdoor tennis courts were in disrepair and were being underutilized. Now, the old tennis courts are being retrofitted to accommodate new activities like soccer golf. A number of indoor spaces—such as the gyms of schools that were no longer in use—were also refurbished to keep residents active during the winter months. Parks throughout the county are also establishing programs to engage young people, especially girls, in fitness activities from karate to archery to hip-hop dance to yoga.

In the Near Westside neighborhood of Syracuse, portions of the only public park have been refurbished, but concerns about crime still persist. No one is going to exercise and play in spaces that are not considered safe. The community is addressing safety issues in a number of ways (for example, cataloging all the street lights in the neighborhood and getting broken lights fixed) and developing regular programming like weekly walks to encourage more residents to use the park. The more people who use the park, the safer it will be.

The Hudson Valley is spectacular and very different from New York City. But in their own very different ways, both regions have made it possible for their residents to be physically active. New York City dwellers rarely own cars and walk almost everywhere. Even in an area where a car is a necessity, public spaces can be reactivated to encourage walking, running, biking, and playing. Can you walk without a sidewalk? You sure can.

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