The City and Borough of Sitka earned a renewal of its Bronze-level Walk Friendly Communities (WFC) designation, joining 22 other communities announced on June 21 that earned designations. In 2013, Sitka became the first and so far only town in Alaska to earn a Bronze-level or higher designation from the Walk Friendly Communities program, coordinated by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Juneau has honorable mention status). Sitka earned its first Bronze WFC renewal in 2017.
“We are thrilled that Sitka has been renewed as a Bronze-level Walk Friendly Community, and proud to be the first town in Alaska to earn the designation in 2013,” Sitka Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said. “A grassroots effort from a group of dedicated citizens to prepare and submit the application for this program has not only improved the lives of Sitkans, but has helped to posture our city for other federal funding opportunities.”
“Sitka is designated as a Bronze-level community due to its consistently high walking mode share and low crash rate, exceptional trail system, and community support for walking initiatives and events,” the WFC program wrote on Sitka’s community page on its website.
The WFC designation is awarded based on a detailed review of a community’s sustained efforts to elevate the needs of pedestrians across all areas of transportation programs. These communities also offer examples of steps that other cities and towns can take to improve walkability and safety.
Included among the June 21 designated communities are Arlington County, Virginia, and New York City, New York, with Platinum-level designations for their activities. WFC also issued four Gold-level (Ann Arbor, Mich.; Chicago; Corvallis, Ore.; Minneapolis), four Silver-level (Alexandria, Va.; Cary, N.C.; Lawrence, Kan.; Ypsilanti, Mich.), and 13 Bronze-level designations (Durango, Colo.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Fergus Falls, Minn.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Gainesville, Fla.; Mount Lebanon, Pa.; Northampton, Mass.; Rochester, Minn.; Sitka, Alaska; Stevens Point, Wis.; Wilsonville, Ore.; York, Pa.). In the 12 years since the WFC program began, it has recognized 82 cities and towns across 32 States with WFC designations.
“We are impressed by the commitments these communities have made to plan and design their communities around people on foot,” said Dan Gelinne, WFC program manager. “We hope these communities can offer inspiration to others as they work to prioritize pedestrian safety and walkability.”
Becoming a Walk Friendly Community was a community wellness project of the 2008 and 2012 Sitka Health Summits (the 2008 project was before there was a national Walk Friendly Communities program). In 2008, Sitka residents wanted the community to be friendlier to people walking or riding bikes (Sitka earned its first Bicycle Friendly Community designation that year), and in 2012 they wanted to add the new WFC designation to the BFC award. Sitka is the only community in Alaska with both Walk Friendly Communities (Bronze in 2013, 2017 and 2022) and Bicycle Friendly Community (Bronze in 2008 and 2012, Silver in 2016 and 2020) designations.
“At the very first Sitka Health Summit in 2007, participants ended the day by sharing ideas on next steps. One idea that filled Harrigan Centennial Hall with applause was being a more walk- and bike-friendly town,” said SEARHC Health Educator Doug Osborne, who helps coordinate the Sitka Health Summit. “Walking was again prioritized by citizen planners at the 2012 Summit and in the last 15 years Sitka has made significant strides in this important area. Since it was first selected as a community goal, multiple crosswalks have been improved, projects to increase visibility have involved hundreds of locals, plus a no-cellphone-while-driving policy to reduce distracted driving, new sidewalks, trails, signage, etc. So much has change and right now hundreds of commuters are stepping into better health and prizes with the Walk, Bike, Win! downtown commuter challenge program this summer.
“Walking is a natural for Sitka,” Osborne added. “For the last 10,000 years people have been walking here. Some might think that cars have taken over, but the vast majority of human beings who will be in Sitka in 2022 will get around on foot. The visitors from the cruise ships are often walking, the Mount Edgecumbe High School student body, locals who don’t have a driver’s license because of age, vision, or other factors. Additionally, we have people walking because they can’t afford to buy, insure, and fuel a car. Others walk because they are motivated to protect the environment for future generations and still more just like it. I get that because life at 3 miles an hour (the average walking speed) is a wonderful thing.”
Walk Friendly Communities is a national recognition program developed to encourage towns and cities across the U.S. to establish or recommit to a high priority for supporting safer walking environments, according to the program’s website. The WFC program recognizes communities that are working to improve a wide range of conditions related to walking, including safety, mobility, access, and comfort.
“The majority of trips in the car are for less than three miles, and if we can encourage people to walk or bike instead we promote a culture of wellness,” said Charles Bingham, coordinator of Walk Sitka and the writer of Sitka’s three WFC applications. “Not only are people getting heart-healthy physical health benefits from walking, there are benefits for mental and emotional health when you take a walk in the woods. In addition, by walking and biking we reduce the amount of car exhaust we have to breathe, and there are economic benefits when we have walkable communities. There also are increased social connections when people, because neighbors can chat with each other instead of being barricaded in a steel box on wheels.”
The Walk Friendly Communities program has two application periods each year, with applications usually due on June 15 and Dec. 15 (this year there was a special renewal-only survey communities could complete in February, due to the pandemic, which is what Sitka used for its renewal). Each application is reviewed by at least three reviewers to provide a fair assessment of the community and technical feedback on how to improve the community’s walkability.
The Walk Friendly Communities program was launched in October 2010. It is coordinated by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC), which is maintained by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It is funded by FedEx Corp.
The next WFC application deadline is Dec. 15, with the results announced in April 2023. Interested communities can go to http://www.walkfriendly.org/, where they can learn more about the program and review the community assessment tool and application.