These streets aren't made for walkin'
Anyone who spends much time getting around on foot in Southwest Portland knows one thing for sure: These streets aren't made for walkin'.
In August of 2019 I reported in the SW Connection on this finding from the Portland Bureau of Transportation, "... the vast majority of Southwest Portland streets contain no dedicated pedestrian infrastructure. Busy traffic conditions on these streets make traveling on foot stressful and unsafe."
This won't come as shocking news to anyone who spends much time on foot around here. I've been walking about 25 miles a week here in the 97219 and 97239 zip codes since COVID-19 came to town. Stressful? At times. Unsafe? In some places. The problem is that Southwest Portland needs more sidewalks where people walk, or would walk, if there were more sidewalks. Hello Barbur Boulevard. Proper crosswalks are also in seriously short supply. Hello Southwest 45th Ave.
SW Trails PDX founder Don Baack has been trying to get PBOT to fix this sidewalk shortfall for decades. Every email he sends ends with this, "SW PDX has 280 miles of streets, but 210 miles have no sidewalks." That's 25% of our local streets. In Southeast Portland 90% of streets have sidewalks. In Northeast Portland that number is 88%.
The powers that be at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which is now under Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, have acknowledged these needs and know that the main reason given by Southwest Portland people for not walking more is "missing sidewalks." Now is the time to fix the situation by delivering on PBOT's promise in 2019 to build "new sidewalks and crossings where most needed."
Why now? Why in Southwest Portland?
Because, as COVID-19 keeps so many people homebound, there's a greater need to get outside. Our streets should be safe for walking. There's also a serious public health issue at play. The sedentary lifestyle can be hazardous to our mental and physical well-being. Building sidewalks so people will walk more is a public health imperative.
Shane O'Mara is a professor at Trinity University in Dublin who specializes in brain research. His book, "In Praise of Walking," preaches the benefits of walking and the necessity of making areas like Southwest Portland more "walkable."
"Emerging science shows that walking improves mood, clarity of thought and creativity," he writes. I could not have put it better myself.
"Regular walking promises ... to be the shortcut that boosts brain function across the board," according to the Irish professor. "The effects of walking are comparable to drug and cognitive behavioral treatments." Take that Big Pharma.
How often? How fast? How many steps? He recommends walking four to five times a week for half an hour at a pace somewhere between stressful and sluggish. Using his smart phone walking app step counter, which he calls "my guilty conscience," his personal goal is 9,500 steps per day. But he's a healthy 30-something walking the flat streets of Dublin. In Southwest Portland, with its crazy terrain, there is no prescribed number of steps that fits all. Fool around with that walking app to see what works for you. Think exertion but not exhaustion (interesting walking fact: Worldwide the average number of steps walked per day is 4,691. In Japan that average number is 5,846 while in Saudi Arabia it's 3,103. Must be the weather in the desert.)
O'Mara is more interested in the psychological effects of walking than in the obvious physical benefits; the man's a brain researcher after all. Take depression. Major depressive disorder (MDD) is indicated when you stop caring about much of anything for two weeks or more. Can walking be your behavioral inoculation against MDD? Would walking be the equivalent of Covid-19 vaccination shots, but against a serious case of the blues?
For some walkers, yes.
He breaks down one study from Wales tracking more than 33,000 walkers for 11 years. Researchers wanted to find out if walking provides protection against depression for people who've never been depressed.
The result? "Twelve percent of future cases of depression could be prevented if all participants engaged in at least one hour of physical activity each week." If a doctor told you that by walking regularly you could decrease your chances of getting Alzheimer's by more than 10%, would you get off the couch?
O'Mara isn't kidding when he suggests that doctors treating patients for weight issues or weighty mental issues should be prescribing half an hour of walking daily.
With more safe sidewalks in Southwest Portland, walking could become addictive.
Bill Gallagher is a former editor of the Southwest Community Connection and is currently a board member with SWTrails PDX (swtrails.org.)
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