Oklahoma City ranked dead last for walkability in a 2009 study of 500 communities by Prevention magazine and the American Podiatric Medical Association, earning the title of "worst U.S. walking city."
"Bleak" is how Jeff Speck, urban planner and author of Walkable City, describes walking in Oklahoma City seven years ago. "Traffic sped too fast ... for pedestrians to feel comfortable on the sidewalks ... oversized traffic lanes encouraged highway speeds," he wrote in Planning magazine.
Mick Cornett, the city's Republican mayor since 2004, notes, "We had built an incredible quality of life, if you happened to be a car. But if you were a person, you were seemingly combating the car all day."
Then, a year after the walk rankings, the city again found itself in the harsh glare of unwanted media attention. This time Men's Fitness magazine stigmatized Oklahoma City as the "No. 2 fattest city" in America. Among the country's 100 largest cities, only Miami was more corpulent.
But that's all changing now. Voters approved an ambitious $18 million sidewalk improvement fund as part of an initiative that also included money for parks, transit, bike trails and senior wellness centers around town. Four busy streets heading into downtown are now being narrowed, with bike lanes and new "smart intersections" that provide walkers more safety with "refuge island" medians in the middle of streets and clearly marked crosswalks.
So what's driving all this pedestrian progress?
Mayor Cornett, a former sportscaster, bristled at his city being called fat and sedentary. Yet he knew that he couldn't credibly deny these charges since he'd gained enough extra pounds while in office to be labeled obese, thanks to endless rounds of breakfast and lunch meetings.
Cornett launched an initiative to get the city back in shape. Over the past seven years, he notes, Oklahoma City has added hundreds of miles of new sidewalks, built eight miles of bike lanes on the streets (there were none in 2008), added 100 more miles to the recreational trail network and built new gyms at many public schools. Low-income neighborhoods, where health and obesity issues are most severe, are the biggest focus of the city's programs for active living and healthy eating.
This all seems to be making a difference -- the growth in Oklahoma City's obesity rate has slowed significantly from six percent annually to one percent, with the stage set for reductions in the future.
Cornett views this spending as crucial for the city's future. "Young millennials, who want to bike and walk, are arriving in numbers we've never seen before," he says. "We are creating a city where your kids and grandkids will choose to stay. They used to go to Dallas or Houston."
"It turned out that one thing people -- especially young people -- wanted was better sidewalks," Cornett explains. That's why the city now builds new sidewalks as part of most repaving projects and kicks in half the cost for any homeowner or neighborhood that wants them. Developers are now required to provide sidewalks in all new projects.
While most people consider walking essential to a good neighborhood, there's still a lot of opposition. "We hear from those who say, 'We don't need sidewalks, because no one walks here,'" Cornett says, noting that the absence of sidewalks is a big reason people don't walk.
The city is in the early stages of initiating a Safe Routes to Schools program, making it possible for more school kids to walk or bike, and a Vision Zero campaign, aimed at eliminating all traffic fatalities in the city, says Dennis Blind of the city's planning department. The city also holds Open Streets events -- festivals where a street is blocked off to vehicles so people of all ages can reclaim the streets (temporarily) as public space.
The epicenter of walking in Oklahoma City is downtown and nearby neighborhoods, which exhibit all the signs of urban vitality: sidewalk cafes, new loft apartments, refurbished old neighborhoods with local business districts, indie shops and restaurants, nightlife, sports and entertainment venues, well-populated parks, riverside bike trails, and sidewalks alive with people of all ages walking between these spots. The next step is expanding the walkable zone to neighborhoods farther from downtown.