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The U.S. Is Failing At Making Its Communities More Walkable

A new report gives the country an F grade on attempts to make it easier and safer for all citizens to get places without a car.

The U.S. Is Failing At Making Its Communities More Walkable
“Making communities more walkable is equitable.” [Photo: Benjamin Rondel/Getty Images]

Whether by street design, long distances between places, or more deep-seated cultural reasons, most Americans walk very little every day. That’s a shame: Public health advocates argue that moderate, informal exercise outside, including walking, is an important determinant of public health. And America’s car-centric development isn’t doing us any favors, remaining an impediment to higher levels of walking and walkability, a new report shows.

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The authoritative new national “report card” of walking and walkability from the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance (NPAP) gives states and the country as a whole largely F scores on key indicators like funding for walking and cycling projects, public transportation, pedestrian safety, and the frequency with which adults and children walk to work or school.

The grades vary across states, with California, Colorado, and Massachusetts meeting standards for walkable neighborhoods, and Illinois, New Jersey, and New York meeting standards for public transportation. But the overall message of the National Walking and Walkable Communities Report Card is “could do better, must do better.”

Prevalence of walking for transportation or leisure.

The  NPAP Alliance, which is made up of several national public health interest groups, looks to make good on a nationally agreed goal from 2008 of all adults completing 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity. That doesn’t just include walking, though it sees walking as something democratic–a starter exercise everyone can partake in, irrespective of income, or background.

“Making communities more walkable is equitable. Sidewalks, trails, and safe streets can be used by all, no matter what age or ability level,” says Amy Eyler, deputy director of the Prevention Research Center at the University of Washington in St. Louis, and one of the authors of the report, in an email. “They also improve sustainability by reducing car travel and can also help communities attract businesses and become more economically viable.”

The report card covers nine factors and uses a grading rubric where an A is 90%-100%, a B is 70%-89%, and a C is 50%-69%. An F is less than 30%. It then collates data from various reputable sources, including the Federal Highway Administration 2016 benchmarking report.

How do kids get to school? Mostly in the car.

The U.S. gets an overall F grade for biking and walking projects, because less than 30% of states meet the standard of $5.26 per state resident funding for such infrastructure. Alaska and Rhode Island spend the most (at least $10 per person).

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Nationally, the U.S. earns an F for children and youth walking behavior because less than 30% of children and youth walk to and from school on a regular basis. Only 12% of students walk to school on a regular basis and only 15% walk home, according to parent surveys.

A grand total of four states meet the standard for pedestrian safety (0.75 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 population), including South Dakota and New Hampshire. Sixteen states meet the standard for walkable neighborhoods, defined as 30% of residents living in a highly walkable neighborhood.

Eyler argues that the U.S. continues to be planned mostly around automobiles, but that a shift toward walkability can have significant health benefits. Most states have yet to introduce “complete streets” policies where streets are built for all users, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

“If we are going to promote and encourage any physical activity for all ages and abilities, walking is our best bet,” she added in a press release. “Although the decision to walk is an individual choice, this decision can be influenced by the way communities are designed and built.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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