In our first ask-an-expert Q & A, we spoke with Vanessa Garrison, the co-founder of GirlTrek, a public health organization that focuses on "mobilizing black women to reclaim their health and communities through walking."

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Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of Q & As with academics, private-sector experts and community leaders on transportation and mobility issues.

In Traffic Lab’s first ask-an-expert Q & A, we spoke with Vanessa Garrison, the co-founder of GirlTrek, a public health organization that focuses on “mobilizing black women to reclaim their health and communities through walking.”

Garrison grew up in Seattle and now lives in Washington, D.C. GirlTrek has 165,000 registered walkers nationwide, including 1,355 in the Seattle area.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q. What inspired you and co-founder Morgan Dixon to create GirlTrek?

A. We were friends who met in college. We both were working at this investment bank in Beverly Hills, California. We were really excited about the trajectory of our lives, but we continued to come back to the women who had set us up for success, and the sacrifices that they had to make to do that for us. Those sacrifices looked like them not taking care of their own selves.

We went on to have separate careers, but we continued to come back to this nagging feeling that we are not personally doing enough for the women who paved the way for us. We’ve started talking about the health crisis facing black women, who were dying at faster rates than any other group in the country, and from those conversations decided to start GirlTrek.

Q. How has being from Seattle influenced your work?

A. When I was 5 years old, I started walking myself to school at Stevens Elementary. I walked to junior high school at St. Joseph. I walked to Garfield High School every day. There was nothing that I could not access — not my family, not my friends, not my community centers, not my shopping.

In the walking, I was able to learn about all the different people along the way. People waved out their windows. We were able to have conversations. The reason that I went back to service work was because of the values that I got growing up in the Central District.

Q. Why did you choose to make walking the centerpiece of GirlTrek’s health initiative?

A. It’s affordable, it’s accessible, any woman could do it, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. When we get off track, walking is the easiest thing to come back to.

Q. How does GirlTrek encourage walking?

A. We need you to walk outside of your front door so that your neighbor sees you and is inspired. So that the little black girl looks out of her window and has a model for what health looks like. So that you can start to see for yourself that you don’t have crosswalks, you don’t have green space, you don’t have traffic lights, and you can start to learn how you advocate for those things.

Q. What do you think makes a neighborhood walkable?

A. Real, genuine points of interest so that I can walk to my post office, I can walk to the dry cleaners, I can walk to the grocery store. I have access to practical things so that walking doesn’t become an adjunct exercise that I have to do, but it becomes a mode of transportation that moves me around. 

And, of course, infrastructure: Sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic lights, the things that prioritize pedestrians over cars.

Q. What have you found creates barriers or challenges for walkability in neighborhoods?

A. If you’re in a neighborhood where there are five lanes of traffic and where the only thing to walk to is a liquor store or corner store where you can buy a bag of Cheetos, where there’s no investment in the infrastructure around the aesthetic of it, that’s not inspiring.

If, when you walk outside, you’re not able to even see your neighbors because there’s no sidewalks and there are all these cars, then it feels like, “I’m out here, and I feel isolated.”

Q. What do you think cities and people can do to make neighborhoods more walkable?

A. Individuals taking action is the first thing that I hope happens. Their actions should be holding their cities and elected officials accountable for serving them. Cities can immediately start to reduce the speed of traffic, put in crosswalks and make signs aesthetically pleasing. 

Q. Are there neighborhoods in Seattle you think need extra attention for walkability?

A. Columbia City, Rainier Valley, and the Rainier Beach area. Those areas feel like they need investment. We can’t ignore the fact that gentrification has heavily pushed black and brown families out of the Central District, further and further south into Kent and Federal Way, and those are not walkable at all.

Q. How do you think Seattle compares to other cities in terms of walkability?

A. I’ve been all over the world, and I think Seattle is one of the most walkable cities in the country. It is also one of the least equitable cities in the country. It is a city in which only certain people now have access to this amazing infrastructure and investment around walkability, and that is an outrage to me.

Q. How can people learn more about GirlTrek?

A. GirlTrek in the Seattle area is organized by Trina Baker, Mikia Cain and Angie Freeman. Those interested can find more information at