Kentuckians are among the nation's least healthy people. All of the surveys show it. Many of us smoke, most of us don't get enough exercise and almost all of us have a deep and abiding love for fried, salty and sugary food.
We also know Kentucky is a poor state, with little money available to build gyms, pools or trails for walking and biking.
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All of that is why many people who attended Lexington's first Bike Summit a year ago were struck by a presentation from Gil Penalosa, the former parks director of Bogotá, Colombia.
"He said, 'You have the best bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the world already in place. You just have cars running up and down it all the time,'" Urban County Councilman Jay McChord recalled.
Penalosa is famous for starting Ciclovia, an event that since 1976 has closed 70 miles of Bogotá's streets to motorized traffic for seven hours each Sunday so people can come out to walk, bike, exercise and socialize.
Several American cities have followed Bogotá's lead. On three Saturdays in August, New York City banned motorized vehicles from seven miles of Park Avenue, all the way from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Thousands of New Yorkers came out to walk and roller blade and to ride bikes, skateboards, strollers, wheelchairs and even grocery carts.
No state has tried such a thing — until Kentucky, this Sunday.
The event is called Second Sunday, and between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., at least 1 mile of a prominent street will be closed in 71 of Kentucky's 120 counties for a street party that focuses on health and fitness.
In Lexington, Limestone will be closed from Third Street south to the Avenue of Champions. There will be a band playing at each end, and musicians will stroll through the crowd.
The courthouse square will be have a health fair and games for all ages. There will be stationary bikes for those who don't want to ride in the street, and tandem bikes for those who want to ride with someone whose eyesight is better than theirs. There will be tai chi and bike polo demonstrations, a stroller workout and a dog bone hunt.
At 4 p.m., police will escort ambitious cyclists who want to ride out to Paris Pike — some even plan to ride to Paris and back.
"We want to make this a 21st-century parade where there are no bystanders," said Diana Doggett, a University of Kentucky extension agent in Fayette County.
Lexington's effort has been championed by McChord and Mayor Jim Newberry, with a lot of work being done by Doggett and Kenzie Gleason, the city's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, among others. A dozen Lexington companies and organizations have signed on as sponsors of Second Sunday, and the Downtown Lexington Corp. has coordinated with businesses on and near Limestone to be open.
UK's Cooperative Extension Service, which is coordinating the statewide effort, put out the challenge at a meeting in June that included teams of officials from 50 counties. Doggett said the response has been overwhelming, and many counties that couldn't get something together for Sunday are already planning events for the second Sunday of October 2009.
The initial goal is to make Second Sunday an annual event. Or maybe a monthly event. In some places, it could even become a weekly event, giving small towns a hook to attract visitors.
McChord sees even bigger possibilities.
One of his interests is building more walking and bike paths. McChord, 40, grew up in the south Lexington suburbs and remembers how important the ball fields built at Shillito Park in the 1970s were to him.
"So I've thought, what could I do that my daughter's generation would look back on?" he said.
McChord decided it was building recreational trails. His first effort has been a proposed 8-mile, multi-use path in his south Lexington district that he's calling the HealthWay trail. It would connect Waveland State Shrine, Shillito and Wellington parks and major shopping centers in the area. He's also among those working to create the Legacy Trail, which would connect downtown Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park.
With the small amount of money now available, it would take forever to build a decent multi-use trail system in Kentucky. For example, McChord said, state officials last year had $13 million in various funds to build bike and pedestrian trails, but got requests for $75 million. And many counties didn't bother to ask, because they knew funds were limited.
So, what if Kentucky could tap into more of the millions and millions of dollars that private foundations across America give each year to promote health, wellness and community life?
"What Second Sunday is designed to do is make a national statement that we are sick and tired of being sick and tired," McChord said. He thinks Kentuckians could use Second Sunday "to cast ourselves as the lovable big loser" — like the characters in the popular weight-loss TV show.
"At the end of the day, we can take our biggest liability and turn it to our advantage," he said. "We can make a statement that allows us to ask for help."
So, think of Second Sunday as a first step — or pedal stroke — to a healthier Kentucky.