No Simple Solution to Louisville’s Fitness Failure? I Disagree.

One route to fitness calls for white paint.
Creative bikeways and traffic enforcement may give cyclists confidence to ride in safe streets.

When Louisville recently showed up at the bottom of the American Fitness Index, the Health Department’s Dr. Matt Zahn responded by saying he doesn’t think we can change our community’s stagnant ways and chronic illness very quickly.

Dr. Zahn thinks City programs like the Mayor’s Healthy Hometown Movement and the city-wide smoking ban – both in direct response to the Metro’s dismal health rankings in recent years – are working. His media response to our most recent failing marks for fitness surprised me because he reflected a common notion that chronic heart disease, stroke, obesity, asthma and other plagues require complicated solutions.  Here’s what he said just the other day:

“No movement or program that we are going to be able to institute is in one year or a couple of years make an obvious dent into these problems. We know that these problems are chronic. These are chronic diseases,” he says. ”There is no way that Metro Government is going to be able to impose or entirely facilitate a solution to that. What we can do is help to provide people with opportunities and education so they can make choices to make themselves healthier.”

Well, Dr. Zahn is right about one thing. We need to make healthy choices. But I respectfully submit to the doctor that we have few safe options for everyday activity. Throughout the Metro we have sidewalks crumbling or non-existent. We have streets too dangerous for bikes and pedestrians. In short, we do very little to make it easy on an everyday basis to bike, walk or take transit. In other words, you can’t get there from here without risking your neck. What good is it to live in a land of free choice when there aren’t any decent choices?

A few examples:

  • Who but the craziest among us would suggest walking, riding a bicycle or taking TARC to any of the big shopping malls?
  • Why has the state legislature failed in the past several sessions to pass a requirement for at least 30 minutes of activity per day in our schools?
  • Why don’t we have safe routes to school so kids can bike or walk at least part of the way each day?
  • Why are the few bike routes and bike lanes strewn with debris and loaded with dangerous holes where utility caps are sinking?

Can anyone be surprised that our citizens choose passive transportation? We’re comfortable in our cars. And comfort is killing us because we don’t have safe and reasonable choices for active instead of passive transportation. Activity is so foreign to us that many of our citizens believe that people on bikes, walking or taking the bus must be too poor to afford a car. The sad truth is quite the opposite. In this miserable economy, our cars are driving us straight to the poor house, but who has a choice if you want to get to work on time?

As last week’s report noted, an unhealthy populace can lead to higher medical costs for all residents and discourage businesses from relocating to the area. Louisvillians are, on average, less active, more overweight and more likely to smoke than residents of all but one of the metro areas studied. Click here to see the report.

I’m far more optimistic than Dr. Zahn concerning our potential for rapid change. I believe Louisville, Kentucky can rapidly become a more prosperous, active and healthy place to live, work and play.  A few policy changes along with buy-in from public and private leadership can rapidly transform our city and surrounding counties.

It all starts with rolling out the red carpet for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, instead of throwing up roadblocks. Without spending a dime on infrastructure, we can get healthier and wealthier. In six months we can make a measurable difference. It takes action at the top, incentives, education, leadership, belief, positivity, connectedness, and the conviction that you can woo people away from the intoxication of gasoline fumes.

I believe we have the ability to make this rapid change at little or no public expense. Moreover, I believe active participants in a movement toward fitness here in Louisville will see their bank accounts grow and their cost of living decrease. Smart people and smart employers will want to move here.

Start by imagining Shelbyville Road with a pair of wide bike lanes straight up the middle, from Crescent Hill to Hurstbourne Ln. Sound crazy? Not after you see the bike boulevard between the White House and Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.  That’s right, on Pennsylvania Avenue you can ride bicycles straight up the middle – and lots of people do.

Paint is cheap. Let’s not waste another minute. Let’s get moving.

Grace. Peace. Bicycle grease.

PS: Remember, every lane is a bike lane.
Share the road.

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Enjoy the ride home.
© Copyright, Kirk M. Kandle, MMXI
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