Walking with Walgreens vs. Walking to Walgreens
Efforts by American corporations to leverage social programs have been on the uptick in recent years. One of the more recent initiatives is by Walgreens, the Illinois-based drug store chain that has over 7,500 stores in the U.S. Walgreens has implemented a new rewards program to encourage customers to integrate more exercise – specifically, walking – into their daily lives. The program is called “Walk with Walgreens” and is intended to “get more Americans walking more steps, in more places….[b]ecause walking is the most fundamental exercise there is. And making it an important part of your daily lifestyle can have a major impact on your health, happiness and even the environment.” Program participants track and log the number of steps they take throughout the day, and in return receive rewards coupons redeemable at Walgreens stores.
As Americans get larger and larger, and as indicators like heart disease and diabetes levels increase, combating our ever-more sedentary lifestyle has become a major public health priority. The Center for Disease Control estimates that in 2008, 68% of adult Americans were overweight or obese (compared to 45% in 1960). Encouraging active transportation (such as walking and biking) – and thereby decreasing our reliance on the automobile as a means of getting from place to place – is a key strategy for improving public health. In fact, to recognize the impact that our transportation system has on public health, the CDC has formally advocated for a national transportation policy that increases safety and access to “active transportation systems.”
We genuinely applaud anyone who encourages (or incentivizes) walking – including Walgreens. What gave us pause with the “Walk With Walgreens” program, however, was the subtle irony embedded in the Walgreens initiative:
Walgreens stores generally have auto-oriented site designs, and are located along busy, high-volume streets which are, more often than not, unwelcoming (and potentially dangerous) to pedestrians.
Take for example this site plan for a new Walgreens store in Austin, Texas. (The aerial of the now-built store is shown on the right).
The store is significantly set back from the sidewalk and wrapped with surface parking lots, requiring pedestrians to cross parking lots and driveways to access the store entrance. Most Walgreens stores also have a drive-through pharmacy window, which creates additional conflict points between pedestrians and moving vehicles. These conditions create an unsafe and unappealing pedestrian environment between the street and the store. Moreover, the store is located along a highly-trafficked, five-lane arterial designed entirely around the automobile. The Austin store is fairly typical of many Walgreens outlets – and of other convenience stores and restaurant chains. Both its siting and its site design discourage walking for all but the most hardy pedestrians – or for those who don’t really have a choice but to travel by foot.
Again, we applaud any program that promotes exercise and provides education that can improve one’s personal health. However, we highlight this inconsistency because we see the program as a band-aid on a broken arm. We would hope that national retailers – as well as city planners and local zoning boards – could do some deeper thinking about some of the larger, more systemic issues around public health and the built environment. There are health-related factors that we as a society can influence or control, including site design and how businesses are integrated into the communities they serve. Siting and building retail outlets that are safer and easier for pedestrians to access may not eradicate heart disease or diabetes, but it would certainly make it easier for their customers to collect points in the “Walk With Walgreens” program – particularly if they can safely Walk to Walgreens.