First soda, now stairs: N.Y. mayor wants laws to promote climbing


NEW YORK -- Pity the poor stairway, relegated in this high-rise city to the dank and dismal corners of most buildings, invisible and ignored save for the occasional fire drill.

But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, building on an anti-obesity drive that has added bike lanes, reduced fatty foods, and tried to take away super-sized sodas, wants to make stairs stylish. On Tuesday, he announced plans to introduce the country’s first legislation aimed at steering people away from elevators and escalators and toward staircases.

The legislation is contained in two bills that would need City Council approval. One would require building owners to make at least one stairway accessible at all times to occupants and to have signs posted next to elevators promoting stairs as an alternative. The other would remove obstacles created by current fire codes and permit the use of devices to hold open doors to one stairway per building. In emergencies, the devices would automatically close the stairway doors.


Bloomberg, whose health initiatives have led to griping in some quarters and, in the case of the soda situation, a festering lawsuit, conceded that this was not the best day to roll out an idea aimed at getting people to exert more energy. It was 95 degrees outside, and the city was suffering through the fourth day of a heat wave.

“Today’s not a great day to exercise,” Bloomberg said after announcing that more than 400 cooling centers had been opened across the city and warning of the dangers of heat exhaustion.

But he said the bills were necessary to combat obesity, which health officials say has become the second-leading cause of preventable death in New York City, after smoking.

The proposed legislation is part of an initiative that includes creation of a nonprofit organization to transform design standards in this city of massive elevator banks that serve as vertical highways in soaring office and apartment buildings. An executive order will require city agencies to use strategies promoted by the organization -- the Center for Active Design -- in new buildings and when renovating existing ones.

The center’s strategies include making stairways more appealing -- giving their doorways windows to let in light, for instance –- and constructing them in ways that guarantee they can’t be missed.

“What we’d like to see is the stair being brought back,” said David Burney, commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction. With the suggested changes, Burney said, stairways would become “friendlier places” than the dark, uninviting passages that often greet those who opt to climb rather than ride.

“The problem is, we’ve been pulled into a sedentary lifestyle,” said Burney, lamenting what he said was one of the most offensive new contributors to obesity-related illnesses: drive-through pharmacies. “You can drive up to pick up the medicine you may have needed less of, if you’d been more active,” he said.

As part of the stair-climbing campaign, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said about 30,000 signs reading “Burn calories, not electricity. Take the stairs!” had been handed out in high-rises to be posted next to elevators. Studies show that such prompts lead to increases in stair usage, said Farley.

Stairs, and the mere idea of them, were not popular at a subway station in Manhattan’s Union Square, where the heat no doubt was leading most people to opt for escalators. Those climbing the stairs moved slowly, sometimes stopping midway up to the pavement to rest or fan themselves.

“I might go down the stairs, but if there’s an elevator, why in the world would I want to walk up stairs?” Felicity Moore said, aghast, when asked if she might be more inclined to climb steps in an office building if signs encouraged her to do so.

Bloomberg, though, has encountered resistance toward virtually all of his health initiatives, only to see them become part of life here and often emulated elsewhere.

In 2008, New York became the first major urban area to require large restaurant chains to include calorie counts on menus. In 2006, it passed the nation’s first law requiring restaurants to drastically cut the use of artificial trans fats in prepared food. It has banned smoking in most public areas, including beaches and parks, and transformed formerly traffic-choked intersections such as Times Square into pedestrian plazas to encourage walking.

In the last five years, the city has added 350 miles of bike lanes, to the chagrin of many motorists.

Bloomberg said he wasn’t concerned about his stair-climbing initiative drawing the sort of opposition that his attempt to limit sugary sodas did. A judge this year invalidated that measure, which would have banned sales of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces at most food establishments. The city is appealing the ruling.

“We must be doing something right,” Bloomberg said, crediting his changes with giving New Yorkers a longer life expectancy than the national average.


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