Politics & Policy

Walk This Way

Government is helping us one step at a time.

Happy Holidays!

This month upwards of millions of Americans will be celebrating the holiday season, and probably all of them will be reveling unknowingly. In case you forgot, October is Walk to School Month. This is the month when America’s youth are celebrating by…walking. It’s hard not to notice all the festivity.

#ad#According to a flyer prepared by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, devoting a month to walking is good “for several reasons” — all of them dubious. Most palpable is the first rationale — “physical activity” — which walking certainly achieves. The second reason to like walking, according to this colorful item of propaganda, is “teaching safe walking skills to children.” Apparently, learning how to walk takes a village. The third reason given is unconvincing: “awareness of how walkable a community is and where improvements can be made.” Most people, even kids, can probably determine “walkability” without consciously trying; it’s unclear why a morning trek to campus is the best procedure for this purpose. Most suspicious, however, is number six: “taking back neighborhoods for people on foot.” Just like that, walking declares itself a threat to modern civilization.

And now we are subsidizing it.

The Partnership for a Walkable America, a national coalition of government agencies and nonprofit organizations, is promoting Walk to School Month (formerly known as October) because it wants “to improve the conditions for walking in America and to increase the number of Americans who walk regularly,” according to its website. All it has to do is persuade parents that their children will face obesity-tormented lives and environmental devastation if they don’t go along with the idea.

Evidently, the idea is catching on. “Virginia’s young children,” reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch approvingly, “will be able to walk and bike more safely to school, thanks to a federally funded program.”

This federally funded program officially began in August 2005 when President Bush signed a massive $300 billion highway bill known cleverly as SAFETEA-LU. Tucked away in this legislation was something benignly called the Safe Routes to School Program, whose entire purpose is to “encourage” children from kindergarten through eighth grade to walk to school. Its mission is to make walking “safe and more appealing.”

Sounds harmless, right? Who’s against walking, or safety, or walking safely? Few people, I imagine; but when it’s government-sponsored, it’s worth questioning.

Not just conservatives but all Americans have a reason to worry when the federal government decides that it needs to instruct people on how to move their feet. With this new program, taxpayers are spending $612 million to be reminded why walking is enjoyable.

Thanks to SAFETEA-LU, federal law now requires each state to allocate between 10% and 30% of its funding to “noninfrastructure-related activities” in order to “change cultural norms and attitudes.” In other words, each state is forced to spend a minimum amount of money ($499,000 in the cheapest hypothetical scenario) on various methods of indoctrination: “safety education,” “public awareness campaigns” expressing the need for safety education, “outreach to press and community leaders” expressing the need for public awareness campaigns, and so on. It is distressing that words like “public awareness,” “outreach” and “education” are necessary in a discussion about walking.

The whole idea is of course a futile exercise. But perhaps the most worrying aspect, as Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation explains, is that it diverts millions of dollars that could be better spent on actual infrastructure needs, on such things as roads and bridges to somewhere. If there’s good news for conservatives, it’s that, like so many federal programs, this one probably won’t achieve anything, either good or bad. But is nothing worth $612 million?

Absolutely, say our elected officials.

Rep. James Oberstar (D., Minn.), ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, calls the Safe Routes to School Program an “innovative” once-in-a-career opportunity. “If you leave it up to the states,” he says, “they have all sorts of excuses for not spending money building bike paths — or on anything other than pouring asphalt.” So, by a vote of 377-30, the House decided to nationalize the paths instead.

In 2004, Oberstar convinced his colleagues that endorsing the program “is an enormous vote of support for a healthy lifestyle.” What politician wants to be on record against health? No one wants to be part of the sickness lobby.

However, the health argument is an odd one. Oberstar warns, “We are facing a health epidemic that 75 percent of children 15 and under do not walk, do not bicycle to school or associated activities; they are driven. That is a class in our society that is mobility challenged.” Mobility challenged? An interesting concept for a class of citizens accustomed to the speedy transport of automobiles.

But that is precisely what upsets the type of people who celebrate Walk to School Month.

The impetus for the program was a report by the Centers for Disease Control, which said that obesity was indeed a big problem. As Oberstar tells it, “The Centers for Disease Control raised the flag. I thought we ought to have a response.” Oberstar appears to be a stellar first responder.

Only he’s not responding to anything. When it comes to incidents of cardiovascular disease and stroke among kindergarteners, government is not responding — it’s preempting. Fueled by various public health-oriented groups like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Congress is, as it is prone to do, inventing something to worry about. And this invention comes with a heavy price tag.

Ardent supporters of the Safe Routes to School Program seem to dislike cars much more than they like walking. Two of the program’s stated tasks are “traffic calming” and “traffic diversion,” which sound awfully at odds with the interests of car drivers. Beneath the cloak of health and safety sensibilities one can detect a bona fide aversion to the automobile and even to modernity itself. Obesity-obsessed environmentalists who want everyone and everything pristine are simply casting themselves as walkers interested in safety, a category that would apply to most of us who aren’t handicapped masochists. The Safe Routes to School Program doesn’t solve infrastructural problems at all. It creates them. The only thing it is paving is a G-rated trail of tears.

To think that Congress has taken it upon itself to tell its constituents how to walk seems so silly that it is tempting to dismiss the whole undertaking as unworthy of serious concern. Nevertheless, for at least five years we are forfeiting freedom of movement for federally funded walking seminars. What’s next, Breathing 101? Before trimming hips, the government should try trimming its purse. It’s time for Uncle Sam to take a hike — figuratively speaking, of course.  

– Windsor Mann is a writer and walker living in Washington, D.C.

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