PRESCHOOLERS IN KIM Forbes’s class at Mary Hogan Elementary School participated in the Vermont Walk/Bike Summit in Middlebury on Friday by showing off their traffic safety skills, which they have honed on weekly walking “adventures” into town since September. Forbes gave a presentation to summit attendees at Triangle Park about how she incorporates basic pedestrian know-how into her early education curriculum. Here the 3- to 5-year-olds show off pedestrian flags at a crosswalk.
Independent photo/Steve James
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine told people at the 2022 Vermont Walk/Bike Summit in Middlebury last Friday that he believes “active and public transportation” must play an increasing role in keeping Vermonters healthy.
“While Vermont usually ranks better than other states, obesity and overweight rates have gone up over the past several years. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and some cancers,” he warned the crowd assembled in Town Hall Theater for the summit’s opening session.
“Adults should have at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity such as brisk walking every day. Youth should have at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity every day. And public transportation can improve health through reduced environmental impacts.”
Around 200 municipal planners, activists, fitness enthusiasts and health care advocates from throughout the state converged on Middlebury on May 6 for the summit, a venue for sharing knowledge and ideas to help make communities more livable through the creation and promotion of more pedestrian- and cyclist-related facilities and services.
The summit offered 18 workshops held in several venues in Middlebury. Workshops included “Cycling Savvy,” “eBike Lending,” “Supporting Innovative & Equitable Strategies to Walk & Bike,” “Vermont Walk/Bike Laws,” and “Connecting Two Towns: Creating a Safe Route.”
Levine set the stage for the summit with his speech, which focused on three important words that would play a key role in virtually all of the 18 workshops: Health, safety and community.
Levine — who’s become well known statewide due to his regular updates and counsel on the COVID-19 pandemic — lamented the fact that a negative byproduct of quarantining during the pandemic has been more Vermonters putting on weight. So he urged them to rediscover exercise, particularly with the spring season upon us. The alternative is damaging in many ways, he noted.
“The root cause of so many of our societal and health problems is social isolation and a lack of connectivity to community, especially for our youth,” he said. “It is so reassuring to me, and should be affirming to you, that you are confronting this simple but critical fact head on in your planning for this day.”
He praised the assembled planners for their efforts to make exercise more convenient for locals and visitors alike.
“Healthy community design means planning and designing communities to make it easier for people to live healthy lives,” Levine said. “Communities designed for the safety of vulnerable road users, especially people walking, biking and using public transport, will be safer for all users.”
The commissioner remarked that “Built Environment” was one of the themes of this year’s summit.
“We at the Health Department use that term all the time; it is clearly a core principle, one that forces us to be collaborative and partner broadly, in activities such as ‘Health in All Policies,’ which is a government task force that brings all sectors of state government to the same table — agriculture and housing and community development and transportation and environmental conservation — to be informed by health and place a health lens on the work they are already doing. That is where the work of community design can become so powerful in accomplishing multiple missions at once and not just connecting point A with point B.”
Levine urged state and local governments to work together on pedestrian safety upgrades in communities. He added maintaining healthy and safe communities will require buy-in from citizens, along with police efforts to enforce the rules and the media “to cover stories around our transportation system and use language that does not inadvertently assign blame to victims, and individuals can follow the rules of the road and respect the safety of their neighbors.”
The Addison County Regional Planning Commission played a major role in organizing this year’s summit, specifically Mike Winslow, the ACRPC’s transportation planner. Other contributors to the summit included Levine; Erin Parizo, deputy chief engineer for the Vermont Department of Transportation; Kim Forbes of the Mary Hogan Preschool “Walk to School” program; and Jim Gish, who for several years served as the town of Middlebury’s liaison to the recently completed downtown rail tunnel project.
Don Kostelec, a partner in Idaho-based Vitruvian Planning, gave a keynote address. Kostelec has become known in part for measuring potential health impacts in planning for municipal and private projects throughout the U.S.
Creating safe walking infrastructure is an equity issue, Levine stressed. Referencing a 2021 report from Smart Growth America, Levine said that in the U.S., older adults, African Americans, Indigenous people, and people walking in low-income communities “continue to be disproportionately represented in fatal crashes involving people walking.”
Moreover, he said people of color — especially Black or African American, and American Indian or Alaska Native people, — continue to die while walking at higher rates compared to white, non-Hispanic, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander people. He pointed to a state survey in 2017 indicating 9% of Vermont adults felt their community wasn’t at all safe or “slightly safe” to walk in, with Vermont adults living with disabilities more than three times as likely to feel that their community was unsafe for walking.”
“And this is in Vermont,” he said, with incredulity. “I can only imagine what the sentiments are in far more populated and urban parts of our country.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.