OKLAHOMA CITY was having a tough time. In 1991, the city prepared a package of incentives designed to attract a United Airlines maintenance center.
City officials were excited when the press conference began, but were deflated when airline officials announced the billion-dollar facility would be located in Indianapolis.
Around 15 years later, the Oklahoma City wound up on a list of the fattest cities in the country. Mayor Mick Cornett said sentiment around city hall was one of begrudging acceptance. A common reaction to OKC’s position on the shameful list: “I bet that’s right.”
In a keynote address at the National Bike Summit in Washington D.C. last week, Cornett told the audience what happened next.
Oklahoma City launched a program called, “This City is Going on a Diet,” which challenged “individuals, families, friends, corporations, churches, local organizations, community groups, sports teams, police departments, fire departments and schools” to join together to lose weight. The effort was similar to Healthy Savannah’s L.E.A.N. Challenge and delivered big results. The city reached the 1 million pounds lost mark in January 2012
The accountability and encouragement offered by the initiative certainly helped it succeed, yet Cornett also understood the critical link between physical activity and the built environment.
“We had created an incredible quality of life in Oklahoma City, he said. “If you were a car. If you happened to be a person...”
Not so much.
To address the problem, the city implemented a program to build trails, bicycle lanes and sidewalks, even in suburban areas where retrofitting automobile-centric streets was both difficult and expensive.
The goal was to make it safer and easier for residents to incorporate healthy transportation and recreation in their daily lives. But Cornett was also aiming for a different target, which was tied directly to the humiliation of that press conference back in 1992.
Despite the sweetheart deal Oklahoma City had offered United, the company eventually admitted why Indianapolis was chosen: Its employees didn’t want to live in Oklahoma City.
Cornett’s dedication to making the city friendlier to people who walk and ride bikes flowed from the idea that quality of life is the highest form of economic development.
Cornett wasn’t the only mayor to speak at the National Bike Summit. Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak proclaimed that bicycling for transportation was no longer a counterculture movement. Instead, he said, it was “the new normal.”
Culver City, Calif. Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells told summit delegates that, “Improving conditions for people who ride bikes improves quality of life for all,” whether they ride bikes or not.
Many cities are becoming aware that providing transportation choices yields better quality of life, but some must also focus on loss of life. Sadly, ours is one of them.
An alarming number of people have been killed while walking and riding bikes in Chatham County this year. The latest was 59-year-old Cynthia Denise Bridges, who was hit by a driver on Abercorn Street on March 14. Abercorn was also where Peter J. Meyer, 72, was hit and killed on Jan. 4.
His death was our first pedestrian fatality this year. Savannah/Chatham Metro Police still seek the hit-and-run driver who killed Meyer and a reward of more than $100,000 is offered.
The details of crashes that kill and injure people on bikes or on foot differ, however, there is a common denominator. Most occur on streets configured to maximize motor vehicle speed and throughput.
Many of these streets are in or near residential areas and they are dangerous by design for people who must walk and ride bikes to reach their jobs and other destinations.
National leadership is emerging to confront this issue. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx launched the “Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets,” which provides a prescription of strategies for reducing traffic crashes and includes support from the USDOT.
To date, no Chatham County municipalities have joined the challenge, despite the obvious need to address traffic injuries and deaths here.
On the legislative side, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Vern Buchanan (R-FL) have introduced the Vision Zero Act of 2015. The bill would set aside grants worth $30 million for cities to plan and implement road safety projects.
H.R. 1274 is not just supported by advocates for people who walk and bike, AAA has endorsed it as well.
As we enter election season, we can expect candidates for local office to declare their zero tolerance policies for violent crime in our city.
Let’s hope candidates will also recognize the urgent situation on our streets and take a similar stance against crashes that injure and kill innocent people.
John Bennett is Executive Director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.
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