Ahhh, January. After weeks of holiday excess comes the season of repentance and New Year’s resolutions. We call them “New Year’s resolutions” because so few of them survive the month. By Super Bowl Sunday it’s back to our old habits. All those healthy promises—so easy to make, so easy to break. They say it takes 30 days to start a new habit. Most of us obviously never make it past 29.
So instead of attempting to change lifelong habits, why not consider a few activities that you can complete in a single day? Pick one or more of the ideas below as a no-guilt, sometime-this-year, One-Day Resolution. Let’s call it the #StrongTownsChallenge. And don’t worry: there’s no ice water involved.
Take One Trip by Bike
Just once, exchange an auto trip for one by bike. Ride to school with your kids. Grab a small backpack and bike to the grocery store. Cycle to work on a random Friday. This is a great way to learn about the obstacles inherent in our car-centric street design. It’s also an intimate way to explore new neighborhoods, enjoy a bit of exercise, get out of your bubble, and feel truly alive.
If you’re feeling insecure about cycling on city streets, test the route on a Sunday when traffic counts are low and drivers are more mellow. But be forewarned, the experience will change drastically when weekday road warriors hit the streets each Monday through Friday. Take note of places along the way that feel comfortable and safe versus those that don’t. Note how often you have to travel out of your way to avoid dangerous streets and impassible barriers (hello interstate highway system!). Think about changes that would make the route safe and pleasant for people on bikes.
Travel by Public Transit for One Day
See how the other half lives and use public transit for your travel needs for an entire day. Again, this could include accompanying your kid to and from school, running an errand, shopping, or just getting to work and back. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with quality, high-frequency transit, you probably do this all the time. But if you’re like most Americans, public transit is not your primary form of transportation.
Riding public transportation for a day is a quick way to learn about the importance of route design, service frequency, adequate transit shelters, and sidewalks. It’s also a great way to learn the meaning of “human scaled design.” (If you’ve ever driven from one side of a large shopping center to the other, you know what I’m talking about.) Depending on when the neighborhood was built—and which zoning laws were in effect—the area will either be friendly or antagonistic to transit users. You may discover a viable alternative to driving that proves far more enjoyable than you ever imagined. Or you may start to understand the challenges non-drivers face as you watch your ice cream turn to soup on the way home from the store.
Walk for Transportation
Forget the treadmills and jogging paths. According to the US Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey, 35% of vehicle trips are less than 2 miles. Just this once, attempt to walk to a nearby destination.
When we walk for exercise, we tend to stick to pleasant routes, designated jogging trails, or local neighborhood streets. When we walk for transportation, we’re forced to reckon with the infrastructure that exists (or doesn’t!) between destinations. You quickly recognize the influence of street design on the pedestrian experience. The number and width of traffic lanes, the design-speed of the street, the existence of safe pedestrian crossings, the presence of street trees, and the quality of adjacent architecture will determine how safe and enjoyable your trip will be. You’ll also discover how often sidewalks are missing, inadequate, or lacking critical features like ADA ramps.
As you walk, take note: Is the shortest distance between two points attractive, interesting, and safe? Or does it feel like a punishing Eco Challenge where pedestrians must scramble over obstacles, traverse bleak and hostile landscapes, and sprint across complex intersections to reach their destination?
Plant a Tree
If I could assign one task to every property owner in the nation, it would be to go out and plant a tree. It will benefit both the environment and your property values, while making life nicer for people who walk, bike and use transit. If you don’t currently control a small chunk of land, make a contribution to an organization that will plant a tree for you in the public right-of-way or at a local park.
Organize a Neighborhood Cleanup
Is there an area in your neighborhood that needs some tidying up? Do you have an elderly neighbor who could use a helping hand with yard work? An alleyway that could use some TLC? A local park or greenbelt that could benefit from litter or graffiti removal? Consider organizing a weekend cleanup event. Some cities offer free dumpsters to neighborhoods on an annual or semi-annual basis for certain types of cleanup projects. If not, see what you can achieve with a few buddies, a pickup truck, trailers, bulky waste collection services, and old-fashioned, curbside refuse services.
Participate in a Tactical Urbanism Project
Is there a place in your city where simple changes could make walking or biking safer? A location that isn’t living up to its potential, but with a few niceties, could demonstrate its capacity for greatness. If so, find some like-minded friends and organize a tactical urbanism project.
Tactical urbanism uses affordable, temporary materials to test concepts in the built environment and prove their effectiveness. Maybe you’d like to demonstrate how a buffered bike lane could fit on a local street. Maybe you’d like to show how an empty lot could become a neighborhood gathering place, pop-up shop, or food court. Maybe you’d like to prove that a road diet could slow traffic without costly and annoying speed humps.
If your project will involve closing a public street for a brief period of time, check local ordinances to see if a permit is required. Also, be sure to gather data to compare results before and after the project. For example, if you’re doing a traffic calming project, gather data about auto speeds and number of drivers who run stop signs, etc. If you’re doing a placemaking project, consider counting the number of visitors, increased pedestrian traffic, etc. to show the impact of improved amenities.
Feel free to experiment, fail, adapt and succeed. Tactical urbanism offers feedback in real time, tangible outcomes, and instant gratification. It’s a great way to engage people who care about their cities but are frustrated with the glacial pace of typical public works projects.
Invent Your Own One-Day Resolution
Don’t limit yourself to the list of options above. Look around your city and find an area to explore. Maybe you’d enjoy participating in a public art project. Maybe you have musical talent and want to try your hand as a street busker for a day. Maybe you just want to visit an under-appreciated part of town. Your resolution could be as simple as supporting a new local shop, restaurant or brewpub. Or maybe you’d enjoy spending a day at a local park, fixing kids’ bikes for free. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
Tell Others What You’ve Learned
Document your adventures on social media and encourage others to make a One-Day Resolution and complete the #StrongTownsChallenge. Highlight the good and bad discoveries you make and offer suggestions for improvements. For bonus points: reach out to local city officials, invite them to participate, and discuss “lessons learned.”