Rural Missouri is walking, even on streets that aren't easy to walk on. We want to be fit and we deserve a safe place to make that happen.
During the recent campaigns, I interviewed over a dozen city council candidates for 6 cities. I asked three questions.
1) Do you bike or walk (and why)?
2) What is it like to bike and walk around your city?
3) What will it be like to bike and walk in your city in the future?
My purpose was to provide voters with a bike/ped picture of their candidates. But as I collected interviews, I began to see patterns in the answers and realized that I had an interesting survey. This isn’t a rigorous study but these patterns can, with caution, be extrapolated to the general population of rural Missouri.
Most of the candidates walk for fitness and leisure, perhaps with a wife or a dog. They like to walk on the trails and walking paths that their cities have built recently. For example, the loop of sidewalks and paths around the Kirksville public school campus, funded in part by Safe Routes to School, is an extremely popular place to walk and jog. None of the candidates walk for any other reason than fitness and leisure (such as for transportation), and few bicycle. One candidate bikes because walking is painful for him. He bikes for fitness and leisure. One candidate is an avid cyclist, biking every day that is warmer than 18F (!) and has ridden double centuries in the MS150. He bikes for fitness, leisure, and performance.
What I took from this survey is that people are getting the message about exercise. This reflects what I’ve seen biking around town: people walking for fitness and leisure, sometimes on roads that are really discouraging for pedestrians. People are not walking for transportation, which is a missed opportunity that we can change with infrastructure and programming, but they are walking.
Despite their walking habits, candidates didn’t seem to know from personal experience how walkable or bike-friendly their city is. Candidates walk in the neighborhoods around their homes. The incumbents were much more knowledgeable. Incumbents knew about their city because they’d been involved in the projects or heard about them at city council meetings, not because they walked around the city a lot.
I haven’t walked or biked in the communities the candidates were from except Kirksville, so I don’t know what they’re like. From what the candidates told me, Mexico has good bike/ped facilities and Brookfield is the furthest behind. But even Brookfield is working on it, and Mexico has only been at it for 10 years. I’m planning some bike trips this summer so I can see for myself!
Unlike last year, this year’s candidates were unanimously in favor of biking and walking. However, some feared that the residents of their communities would not favor bike/ped projects. More than one said there were more important things to spend money on (“We’ve got bigger fish to fry”), like jobs. (One candidate did an unabashed about-face when I pointed out that companies look for livable communities that they can attract employees too—and livable means sidewalks.)
Incumbents had a better opinion of residents’ views on biking and walking. One cited a survey which found that residents wholeheartedly support parks and trails.
The mayor of Hannibal stood out in that he was proud of Hannibal’s 2 bike racks. Now, 2 bike racks is woefully inadequate but it is more than most communities have. Most cities are thinking only about sidewalks and maybe a bike lane. Bike racks haven’t occurred to city officials yet. So he was justified in his pride.
I have a funny story about the mayor of Hannibal. I had sent my emails to Hannibal’s candidates, and I got a phone call. “Can you hold for the mayor of Hannibal?” she asked. “Sure,” I said, but I was hard pressed not to laugh out loud. I thought you only got that when POTUS called! (The mayor of Hannibal was a nice guy and gave me a lot of recently-researched information about Hannibal.)
Northeast Missouri is walking, even on roads that aren't friendly for walkers. Rural Missourians want to be healthy. It's the job of city & county planners and MoDOT to make it people to have a healthy lifestyle.
I hope I can interview city council candidates every year for a long time. More importantly than getting information about who to vote for, I learned about trends in biking and walking in rural Missouri. Longitudinal interviews will be highly revealing.