Chuck Marohn interviews Kate Kraft, the Executive Director of America Walks to talk about how to use infrastructure spending to create more walkable places across America. She advocates for a balanced, people-centered transportation system and discusses different ways to achieve that.
This interview is part of our ongoing conversation on federal infrastructure spending.
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Chuck Marohn: Hey everybody. This is Chuck Marohn. Welcome back to the Strong Towns podcast. This campaign season, our leading political candidates have indicated that they want to make some game-changing investments in infrastructure. In a nation that seems deeply divided on so many fundamental issues, the need for large investments in infrastructure is seemingly the one place where we have a broad consensus.
At Strong Towns, we understand that American's approach to growth and development is bankrupting our cities. This begs the question: if we're committed to spending more money on infrastructure, how do we do that in a way that actually makes us better off? We've been chatting with people who are deeply involved on this issue across the country. Today I'm really excited and honored to welcome Kate Karft. She is the Executive Director of an organization called America Walks. They're making America a great place to walk. You can find them at americawalks.org.
Katherine, Kate, welcome to the Strong Towns podcast.
Kate Kraft: Thank you, Chuck. Before we get started, I want to say what fans we are of Strong Towns and all of the work that you. We represent over 700 different organizations that are working to create walkable places and make it safe for pedestrians. We find your material and information incredibly valuable in helping us make the case at the local level. Given this opportunity, I want to say thank you for doing it and keep doing it.
Chuck Marohn: That is very generous of you. I really do appreciate that. Before we get too deep into the weeds, tell us a little bit about America walks. I think people would be interested to know what you all do.
Kate Kraft: Thanks. I'd be happy to. We were started in 1997 when six different groups or organizations came together that had been working at the local level to promote pedestrian issues: pedestrian safety, better sidewalk. They felt like they were a bit in a vacuum, so they came together and said, "How can we support each other, to commiserate together and share successes together?" Since that time, the pedestrian movement has grown quite a bit. We have, as I mentioned earlier, over 700 different organizations that would identify as pedestrian advocacy or walking advocates or walking champions. That's at the local state and regional level.
We primarily provide information, resources, and education to local walking advocates as well as we also work to cultivate more local walking advocate organizations. We have a pretty extensive online library set of tools. We conduct what we call a Walking College, which is an intensive online training for individuals that want to become leaders in the walking movement.
In addition to that, we provide a voice for the collectives of the walking movement. We listen to what we're hearing from communities and what are the emerging issues that they care about. We try to represent that at the national level as an advocate and as a member of various national coalitions.
The one final thing we do and it's in keeping with this providing a platform for walking advocates to come together, we conduct an every-other-year National Walking Summit, which is a premier event that brings together walking advocates and champions with transportation planning, public health, design professionals to really learn what the latest research is, learn what the latest technologies are, and to further refine our voice and provide some leadership for where the walking movement is going. Hopefully, I'll tell you more about that as we get talking.
Chuck Marohn: That's beautiful. I want to ask you, we see candidates, up and down the ballot, all sides of whatever political debate you're on, advocating for more funding for infrastructure. I'm interested in your gut reaction to the sense that we need what is being called a surge in infrastructure spending. How do you react to that notion?
Kate Kraft: Absolutely. We need a surge in infrastructure spending, but it needs to be the right infrastructure. We want a balanced transportation system that provides infrastructure for safe, convenient, and accessible mobility of all types. By all means, let's pay attention to and invest more in our infrastructure. Let's just make sure that we're working for a balanced transportation system that puts people and access to jobs, school, healthcare, parks, people and access at the center, not just moving cars and freight.
Chuck Marohn: If we were going to do a large infrastructure bill at the federal level, a lot of federal money for infrastructure, what do you think the best way that that money would be distributed? How can you see that happening in the most productive way?
Kate Kraft: I think that first we probably need to rethink what we're using as performance standards or how the money gets spent. First I'd say we need to simplify the process and make it much easier for communities to be involved in the decision-making, so that we're sure we're responding to the needs and desires of communities. One piece of that and that could be done at the state level with listening. I think that we need to make sure that the performance measures that guide where the money goes or how the allocations are made really take into account this idea that we want to connect people and we want to create connected active transportation or multi-modal system.
Chuck Marohn: I think one of the things that I see people in your position have concerns with is that if the money just goes straight to the departments of transportation at the state level, we get a lot of the same kind of stuff. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but is that one of the concerns that you might have? If it is, how would we move past that?
Kate Kraft: That is the concern. I think part of the way of moving past it is by requiring more community input and context-sensitive design and really thinking about what the people that live there and will be using that system, how they prioritize the system. I also think there needs to be some sort of special allocations or increased priority for those investments that are going to address disparities and gaps in access, so that we give some extra benefit to providing investment in places that we haven't been as invested in, so increasing the equity, if you will.
We know that the transportation system responds to performance measures. If we change what those performance measures are or what we hold them accountable for and we make that more about multi-modal active, connected transportation system, the more balanced system, then we can push for a different allocation of resources.
Chuck Marohn: If you look at the kind of projects that can be funded, are there certain types of projects that you would like to see get funding? As a corollary to that, are there certain types of projects that with a surge in infrastructure funding, you would say, this kind of thing should not be eligible for that?
Kate Kraft: I happen to be very excited about some of the work that Secretary Foxx has done in his Every Place Counts and Ladders of Opportunity initiatives that really have focused on creating systems that provide access for individuals, so that you have a multi-modal system where people can actually get to jobs and places and trying to correct some of the past destruction when we put major highways through cities and through neighborhoods that disconnected them from each other. With the Every Place Counts and Ladders of Opportunity, there's a lot of effort being done to reconnect those communities.
I'd like to see more of those projects such as the Green Line project in St. Paul where they've added extra transit stops on a new transit line and working with the Rondo neighborhood there in St. Paul to reconfigure the neighborhood and reconnect it by taking down a highway and really providing access points because at one point, the I-94 corridor came through there and split what had been a vibrant neighborhood in half and now trying to rebuild it. Those kinds of investments, I think, are to really use infrastructure and transportation to build community, to focus on people, and giving them access, multiple types of access, to jobs and opportunities. I think really more of that would be great.
Chuck Marohn: One of the things that I have heard a lot of, and I'm going to give you both sides of this argument. For people who really want walking investments and more walking infrastructure, one argument goes, if we give the money directly to cities, they're the ones who know what these projects are. They're the ones who get the highest return on these investments. They're the ones in the best position to do the fine-grained nuanced type of stuff that needs to happen to improve walking infrastructure. The counterargument I hear to that is if we don't have top-down mandates, if we give the money directly to cities, they'll wind up spending it on the frontage road out on the end of town and trying to attract some new business. It won't go to the places where it really should. Do you have a strong opinion on that or is there a nuance there that's not captured in that kind of two sets of different viewpoints?
Kate Kraft: I do think there's probably a nuance that's not captured there in that whether you give it to a city or to a state, if the people whose lives are going to be most impacted by the decision are not involved in the process, you can have cities make the same mistakes that states can make. I think that the community engagement in making sure that the consumers, if you will, are equally involved in the planning process is important. That also requires that we simplify some of these processes that have been in place to drive transportation spending and planning. In some cases, it's so complex and requires a PhD in engineering in order to participate. As long as that's the case, we're not going to be able to really design for people because we can't listen to people.
Chuck Marohn: One of the arguments that we make at Strong Towns all the time, as loudly as we can, is that the very small investments are the real high returning ones. The idea of how do we get people able to cross the street safely? How do we get people to walk two blocks to the store instead of driving out to the edge of town? When we look at the very small fine-grained walking and biking investments, they're really, really high return. From a financial standpoint, every dollar we spend, we're getting multiple dollars back. A lot of the infrastructure spending we do is under the guise of economic development. How much of a case can we make that these small walking and biking investments are truly where the economic development action is today?
Kate Kraft: We have research and we have examples that really show that, over and over again, we know that a more walkable main street or downtown is a more economically-thriving community. We know that a more walkable community is one where the people are actually getting more physical activity and being healthier, therefore less healthcare cost. We are continually building that evidence for creating multi-use paths and trails and how they promote economic development and create a higher quality of life and well-being or livability for the people that are there. That case is there.
In fact, the demand for that kind of infrastructure is increasing. We're finding in surveys that like Routes to School National Partnership did, 80% of the people they surveyed wanted a more walk-friendly environment. We're hearing from the National Realtors Association that increasingly, the people coming to buy or looking for homes in walkable places. We're getting this tide that's turning a little [inaudible 00:15:24]. We want this. We're demanding it.
Fortunately, it's one of those things that, as you said, you improve the sidewalk system, you make sure you have good crosswalks and plenty of them with short blocks. You make sure you have destinations that people really want to go to that are within a walking distance or a connected transit system where you can walk to a transit stop that will take you somewhere and then you walk back. That transit-rich, walkable environment is what we're seeing people want and increasingly seeing evidence that it's good for towns. It's good the economy and good for the environment and good for our health.
Chuck Marohn: What would you say to the local leader, either an elected official or someone who's a professional staff or someone who just wants to see their community become more walkable, what would you say to that person today, particularly if they're facing the backlash from people who say, "That's Europe. America is a country of cars, and we drive everywhere." What would you say to the advocate who wants to make their city a little more walkable?
Kate Kraft: What I would say one place to start that is not a costly thing to do from a financial point of view is to slow speed. Slower speeds will make it more walkable. You won't have the kinds of injuries or deaths that you see. We say definitely lower the speed limit as one way to start to signal that pedestrians have the same kind of experience. That they're important really. It's important.
It's interesting because more and more elected officials are speaking out. They want the walkable downtowns and are putting together coalitions to make this happen whether it is through developing a vision-zero initiative within their towns saying we want to stop injuring and killing pedestrians. We're going to this safety thing like making sure all of our crosswalks are adequate to get across. Making sure that our sidewalks can support pedestrians. Slowing the speed so that if you do get hit, you're not as likely to get hurt. We're seeing more and more of that.
There's a pretty big critical mass now of mayors of all town sizes that are moving toward, pushing for walkability and walking, so you're in good company.
Chuck Marohn: Katherine Kraft, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. You can find out more at americawalks.org. Katherine, I know you're going to be a the summit here in my home state of Minnesota next year. Can you chat a little bit about that?
Kate Kraft: Yes. We're going to be in St. Paul in September 13th through the 15th, 2017 for our third National Walking Summit. It is the first time we've been outside of DC for the summit. We are so excited because there's so many interesting livability projects going on in St. Paul, plus the transportation work that I mentioned earlier that we'll be able to learn from as we bring our walking advocates from across the country to St. Paul. Hopefully, we'll see you there.
Chuck Marohn: I would love to be there. Let me just say like to piggyback on that, when the Republican National Convention was held here in St. Paul, one of the laments was that a lot of people stayed in Minneapolis. Minneapolis is a gorgeous city. There's a lot of great stuff there. I can't blame people for wanting to be in Minneapolis, but I got to say St. Paul's a beautiful place. Not only is it a great place to bike and walk, but there's a lot of great places to stay and eat and a lot of good entertainment. You're going to love St. Paul. I think it's a great city.
Kate Kraft: Yeah. We're staying right downtown St. Paul on the river. We expect to be able to see and enjoy the downtown quite a bit.
Chuck Marohn: I look forward to seeing you there if I don't get a chance to run into you sooner. Thanks so much.
Kate Kraft: All right. Thanks a lot, Chuck. Okay. Bye-bye.
Chuck Marohn: Yeah. Take care. Bye-bye.
Thanks everybody for listening. Keep doing what you can to build a Strong Town. Take care.
(Top image from Every Body Walk)