TransportationCamp Chat with Scott Bricker

OpenPlans and friends are convening the third annual TransportationCamp DC on January 11, 2014, at George Mason University’s Arlington campus. If you haven’t already signed up, you are very welcome.  We’re reaching out to leaders and thinkers in the transportation and technology field, and asking them about what is interesting and important in the field right now. I spoke with Scott Bricker, Executive Director of America Walks.

Could you tell me a little bit about what America Walks does?

America Walks is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, a national advocacy organization, and we work to make America a great place to walk. We do that through increasing walking, and improving walkability. We consider ourselves the only organization that’s focused exclusively on walking and walkability.

That’s both at the national level, where we have presence in Washington DC, serving to advocate on behalf of walking and walkability, to the Congressional level, and even more so at the agency level. Then we also work in partnership with many other organizations, and groups that care about healthy lifestyles, active transportation, green economy, et cetera.

America Walks serves as the group that continuously says, “Walking and walkability.”

What are some things that you’re working on right now that are particularly interesting or exciting?

I’d say one of the most exciting things that’s coming up is the anticipated call for action on walking, out of the Office of the Surgeon General. America Walks has a co‑partnership agreement with the Office of the Surgeon General to support that process, and they have been taking public input, and writing a scientific report.

Who do you see as the audience for that report? Who do you want to see really take the findings to heart?

We expect, seeing as the call to action is the Office of the Surgeon General’s highest‑level science‑based and action‑based report, that the National Centers for Disease Control, for example, and state health departments, healthcare companies, nonprofit organizations, groups that care about health particularly, are going to be the first types of groups that we expect to respond to this.

One of the areas that we’ve seen for significant growth in interest in walking and walkability is out of the health community. The recognition that walking is the most basic form of physical activity, it’s the most popular form of physical activity. It’s effectively free, it’s easy to do. All you have to do is get off the couch and do it.

What we’ve seen is a lot of groups, particularly health coalitions and others, starting to take to walking as an intervention that they can build into their strategies.

This is relatively new. Walking is the ultimate “retro” activity. We’ve been doing it for four million years, but we haven’t really focused on it in a community and advocacy standpoint, and that is really coming around.

This is an area that many groups are starting to recognize, “Wow, we really haven’t put energy into this really basic, fundamental, critical element of our community. It’s time to do that.”

Thinking about walking as transportation, what are some of the things that you see as being important in terms of technology and walkability, and also in terms of policy as well? What are some of the transportation-related issues that you see?

One of the things to recognize is that we don’t know exactly how many walking trips there are, but approximately half of walking trips are for transportation, and approximately half are just walking the dog. They’re both really important.

As it relates to transportation, I think technology has provided an incredible platform for people to be able to walk. Including myself, and I’ll give you the example. I travel a lot for work. If I’m going to fly into a city that I haven’t been to before or in a long time, and I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to get around, I probably could just go catch a cab.  But using technology at my fingertips, literally, when I land I can figure out where is the transit? Where is the nearest next bus, the next train?

I can land in a city and open up a mapping software on my phone and put in directions and walk to the destinations. It gives you an approximate distance and time, which is critical. I have to say, as someone who walks a lot and loves to walk, and travels a lot, and loves to travel, that the technology that’s available today has really created an incredible opportunity, and made it so much easier.

People are using these tools, and it’s an incredible resource. That ranges from transit trackers to just knowing, “Where is the nearest coffee shop and how far? Oh, it’s only a 10‑minute walk away, I can go do that.”

In addition to just, “Hey, I know where I’m going now,” it creates a level of transparency that wasn’t there before. Especially when people don’t walk, they don’t recognize, “Oh, I can actually get there relatively quickly.” It creates that understanding of what they might be facing if they decide to take that as a walking trip.

Technology has huge impacts on the ability for people to walk, and I think it’s also become a huge motivation. There’s a great number of people who are using technology to track their physical activity, to track their walking steps. A lot of times, that’s related to just getting out and going for a pleasure walk, but that’s also completely compatible with transportation walking.

There’s a motivational and tracking standpoint and quite frankly, from a policy standpoint, there’s an incredible untapped potential to make use of that data to be able to have a better sense of how people are walking, what their behaviors are. Because we all basically are carrying accelerometers around with us, with GPS tracking.

Not that we want to track individual behavior, but in understanding how the population is moving around and walking, there’s an incredible policy opportunity to better understand what people are doing on a daily basis.

Is there anything else you wanted to say, that we didn’t cover?

In addition to our work as a backbone organization for the “Every Body Walk” collaborative, which is a really exciting project, is specifically our work to support states and communities in developing strategies to advance walking and walkability in our communities.

Related to what we talked about, about not that many groups having a focus on walking and walkability, we find the same thing at the state and local level. I think the huge growing potential is for these community collaborations. It’s not just the bike-walk organizations but it’s actually a much broader set of stakeholders who are recognizing importance to really hone in on strategies. Walking is very populist; it’s not a political hot potato.

Walking is such a basic form of human existence that I think that there’s a huge opportunity for those communities to take walking and walkability strategies. America Walks is working to support those communities, and helping them develop strategies to advance walkability in local communities.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)