I have now been in Monroe, LA for almost two weeks, and one of the things that has struck me the most is how unfriendly this city is to pedestrians and cyclists. More unfriendly than almost any other moderate sized city I have ever been in. For a city that has both a large university campus and it’s own airport, I find it hard to accept how difficult it is to get around by any means other than driving a car. This state of affairs is troubling to me for several reasons.
As an avid runner, walker, and bicycle commuter, I am finding it difficult to safely pursue these activities in this city. Like many cities, Monroe does not have many streets with bike lanes. While this troubles me, I have educated myself on my rights as a cyclist so that I can use the roads as safely as possible. I wear bright, reflective clothing, and use multiple flashing lights on my bike in the dark. I know that (at least in most states) I am entitled to use the whole lane if there is not a dedicated bike lane or adequate shoulder, and that I must follow all the rules that apply to “vehicles” on the road. The problem is, drivers don’t know that. They don’t know that I am entitled to all the rights and respect of any other vehicle on the road. They don’t realize that passing me with only a foot of space between my handlebars and their passenger side mirror is too close, or that getting “doored” because they didn’t look could be a life or death situation for me. All of these things I have experienced in other cities where I’ve lived, but here, where the roads look like this, with narrow lanes and nonexistent shoulders which drop into holes along the side of the road, one swerve to avoid car that passes too close could send me headlong into a deep ditch, or worse: back into the road.
As difficult as I find this as a seasoned bicycle commuter, it is not surprising to me that I so rarely see others riding bicycles around this city despite the nice weather. This in turn leads to very little infrastructure for cyclists in the city, most notably the dearth of bicycle-friendly roadways and an obvious lack bicycle racks. So not only is it dangerous and at times unpleasant to ride a bike, when you arrive at your destination there may be nowhere to safely leave your bike.
More concerning to me than the lack of bicycle infrastructure though, is the lack of pedestrian infrastructure. In addition to the lack of good shoulders on the roads, many streets do not have sidewalks, or if they do, they are not always well maintained and end abruptly though the road continues. There are no crosswalks or walk signals at intersections, which make it difficult and dangerous to cross, particularly the larger multi-lane roads. There are a few parks with paths for walkers/runners, but it is difficult to get to those parks unless you drive there.
As much as these things bother me on a personal level, I know that I will continue to ride my bike and go running because those things are important to me and I’m not one to let inconvenience get in the way of a good run. What bothers me more is seeing these things from a professional viewpoint. As a physical therapist, and especially as an aspiring cardiovascular and pulmonary specialist, I feel very strongly about promoting exercise and active lifestyles. I believe that if I do not encourage an active lifestyle I am doing my patients, myself, my community, and my profession an immense disservice.
Most people know that exercise and an active lifestyle promote health and wellbeing, and organizations like the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out activity and exercise recommendations for a healthy life. Research shows that just adding a walk to your daily routine can have a significant impact on your health. But how can I encourage walking and an active lifestyle for my patients and my community if there is nowhere safe for people to walk? According to this article from the CDC, and other research I have read in the past, two of the top reasons that people do not participate in exercise are that they find it inconvenient and do not have time. In fact, research has been done which shows that our physical environment — access to parks, sidewalks, gyms etc — can have an enormous impact on how physically active we are. This article from the Harvard School of Public Health explains this all in much greater detail and much more eloquently than I could, with more than 50 supporting articles in their references.
Research is a great tool to effect change, but what about in the here and now? How do I encourage people to walk when this is what they have to walk along and they cannot safely cross the street at a busy intersection?
How do I encourage an active lifestyle when this society is built on cars with drive-thus and restaurants like Sonic on every other street corner?
On my first day at my new job, when my coworkers heard that I was riding my bike to work and that I run for exercise, they told me I should carry pepper spray on me whenever I’m out…and especially when I’m in the only area of the city where I have seen consistent sidewalks. How do I encourage people to get their exercise when the gym is too far away or too expensive, but their neighborhoods aren’t a safe place to go for a walk?
I don’t have a good solution, but I’m going to keep leading my active lifestyle and encouraging others to do the same to the best of their ability.