The Surprising Benefits of Taking Cars off Our City Streets
By Marcela Guerrero Casas
A future in which everyone travels in driverless flying cars may still dominate the popular imagination, particularly when it comes to media and marketing hype. But if we are to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on sustainable cities and communities, a more revolutionary (albeit more low-tech) picture will unfold, in which people are moving freely and swiftly — but not by car.
Reducing our dependence on petrol cars is not only better for the planet and our individual wellbeing, it will pave the way to a better future for our cities. From improving mobility and ensuring civic participation in how cities are designed, run and experienced, to public health and strengthening the social fabric that will make our communities more resilient, a shift towards fewer cars can help our cities not only survive, but thrive.
The process may not be simple, but there is a practical and easy strategy that can help people see streets differently: temporarily taking cars off the street.
Cars contribute to a public health crisis — air pollution
How to get people out of their cars continues to be a global challenge. Even in cities where public space and public transport are safe and reliable, this can be difficult; it is especially so in places where these amenities are unsafe, unaffordable and unreliable. This is where temporary interventions such as car-free days can unlock a whole new approach to movement and mobility.
In the mid-1970s, Colombia's capital city, Bogotá, saw the birth of what would become a global movement to make streets safer, more inclusive and more appealing to city dwellers. It is called Ciclovia, often known as "open streets" in English-speaking countries, and entails the creation of car-free routes throughout the city every Sunday and public holiday.
The swarms of cyclists that take over city streets on these occasions is a real spectacle. Even though the impact on mobility patterns has not yet been fully understood, it is clear that in places like Bogotá, Ciclovía was the genesis of bicycle infrastructure in the city and perhaps the country. Culture and environment has helped the movement to grow bicycling in Colombia: people have relied on the bicycle to travel for more than 100 years and professional cycling is a source of national pride. This might not be the case everywhere, but the worldwide frenzy around urban cycling makes this an opportune moment to try car-free street programs and put them to the test.
On most days, our city streets are clogged with motorized traffic and, in some cases, crime and pollution. Temporary car-free space thus becomes a platform to exercise our right to the city and to co-create a new urban vision.
In most Latin American capitals, governments run a weekly Open Streets program. As acknowledged at a recent congress of Ciclovia initiatives in the region, many local officials have bought into the concept and one of the key objectives of this program is to bring happiness to their citizens. This, as far as non-material infrastructure goes, is what city-making is really about: the sense of belonging, involvement and self-determination, which is best expressed in physical joy.
Great efforts have been made to measure the impact of Ciclovia in Latin American cities' public health. In Colombia, for instance, researchers from Los Andes University have demonstrated that for every dollar spent on the program, three dollars are saved on public health. The Ministry of Sport has also helped create a national network to promote the program in more cities and towns of the country and continues to carry out rigorous studies to ascertain what type of physical activity curriculum is most effective. In getting a regular dosage of physical activity as recommended by medical practitioners, there is no better place than kilometers of car-free space in which thousands – and in the case of Bogotá, millions – are also exercising and moving. As the Latin American network likes to explain, "It is a healthy epidemic." And it is one that keeps growing, not only in Latin America but across the globe, with African cities most recently joining through the creation of Open Streets programs in places like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Abuja, Nairobi, Kigali and more.
In cities where people have been historically segregated and economic disparity continues to dig deep trenches between communities, creating a space of inclusion can be powerful. In Bogotá, the impact is such that areas which are normally out of bounds, both because they exclude the poor or because they are deemed to be too dangerous, become welcoming spaces for everyone to experience and enjoy.
Similarly, in Cape Town, where the program has been tested in different parts of a city where spaces of racial and social integration are rare, Open Streets is a symbol of a new future, because young people are able to experience a city where streets are democratized and inclusive of all ages, races and backgrounds.
To ensure sustainable cities all around, we must take steps to shift away from the current over-dependency on the automobile. We can begin this process by thinking how we re-organize and utilize public space for the benefit of not only new design and infrastructure, but also for new generations to think of that space differently and therefore create new narratives around it. Temporary interventions work with existing assets and focus on shifting people's perception which will ultimately shape how we view and exercise sustainable urban planning in the long term.
Marcela Guerrero Casas is the founder and an associate of Open Streets Cape Town.
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Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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