For Many Americans, Walking is Transportation, Not Recreation

Walking as exercise is great – but for many people, walkability is required, not recreational.

By Hanna Brooks Olsen

Urban Walking

There’s no shortage of evidence pointing to the benefits of walking. Regular walks promote strong bones. They can help prevent heart disease and even COVID-19. They can prevent cognitive decline. It’s natural, then, that public health officials recommend that people choose to walk more often. 

Unfortunately, walking for leisure and health isn’t a choice for everyone. Many people walk to get to work, to take their kids to school, and to access necessary services and businesses. They don’t or can’t drive. They don’t have access to reliable transit or other forms of transportation. For a surprising number of Americans, daily walking is forced, it’s strictly functional — and it’s not any fun. 

When Walking Is The Only Choice

Planning a commute typically involves making choices. We map our routes, figure out which stops to make and when. Do you catch the early bus or the later one? Use the rail or the surface bus? Drive to a park-and-ride or brave the traffic? 

Unfortunately, these kinds of choices are only possible when numerous options are available. A choice, by its nature, exists because there is a range of different possibilities. When there is only one choice — get there by your own physical movement, regardless of distance, climate, or terrain — walking isn’t something you choose to do. Instead, it’s a necessity that is foisted upon you. 

And it’s foisted upon a lot of people. In both rural and urban settings, access to a car is much less ubiquitous than most drivers might think. More than 1 million Americans living in rural areas have no access to a car. And according to a study released by the Brookings Institute, “in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, 7.5 million households do not have access to a private automobile.” Most of those individuals live near some kind of transportation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s reliable, affordable, or accessible. 

Households with cars may not be able to afford to drive frequently or may have one member of the family who needs the car most of the time. In the absence of transit — and about 45 percent of Americans have no access to public transit — walking or cycling may become the default.

Cycling is a viable alternative for many people, but certainly not everyone. Seniors, those with mobility challenges, and those living with disabilities may not be able to ride. Many families can’t afford a bike and the additional accessories that go with it. Those with young children may have a difficult time transporting them by bicycle and, during seasons of snow, ice, or forest fire smoke, the additional exertion of a bike might not be feasible. 

Which means that people walk. They walk in areas that are not urban, not dense, and not especially walkable. They use their precious time to take trips that most of us would consider much too long, walk past expanses of parking lots, and try to figure out how to make it all fit into a day. 

Walkability — Not Just Nice to Have

Too often, we plan neighborhoods and communities with the idea that walkability is a pleasant benefit, not a requirement for daily life. This is how we wind up with sidewalks to nowhere, inconvenient or nonexistent transit, and stores that are so far apart from one another, the only way to run multiple errands is to use a car. 

And, like just about every other facet of American life, there are deep disparities as a result. 

Regardless of where people live, the majority of people living in zero-car households — those who are dependent on transit and other non-driving methods of transportation — in the United States are lower-income, include People of Color, and seniors. Additionally, individuals who live with a disability are substantially more likely to require access to transit; an estimated “25.5 million Americans age 5 and older have self-reported travel-limiting disabilities,” according to the Bureau of Transportation. 

Lower-income individuals and families do tend to live in areas that are more walkable. That’s because urban areas have historically been places where marginalized folks could find housing and work. Predominantly white, higher-earning people, meanwhile, are overrepresented in suburbs that are often not walkable. 

That doesn’t mean, though, that this is at all equitable. Most of the people who are reliant on their own legs for transportation are lower-income — and will stay that way, thanks to our collective decision to make cars essential, transit an option, and walking an afterthought. Our lack of infrastructure for people who choose not to drive is a piece of the larger cycle of poverty. 

As the authors of the report Poverty of the Carless: Toward Universal Auto Access wrote in 2019, “the United States has constructed a vast and comprehensive public infrastructure that allows, and often requires, most people to drive most places. Yet every year, close to one in ten households (and sometimes more) cannot access that public infrastructure, because they cannot afford the large private investment it demands.”

Finding Solutions

It deserves note that while many of us may agree on the problem, we don’t see eye-to-eye on the conclusion. For example, the authors’ conclusion in the above study — that universal access to cars is the answer — is the opposite from what we at America Walks would conclude. We see the fact that many people can’t or don’t drive as a call to action away from cars and car-dependent infrastructure in general. More cars — or more car sharing, or more carpooling, or any other solution with “car” in the name — won’t solve our climate crisis. It won’t create safer or more useful or pleasant streets for pedestrians. Even these researchers admit this in a passage of their report:

…Many disadvantaged people hover just above carlessness, struggling (and periodically failing) to maintain access to vehicles. Below these people on the income ladder are households without automobiles, who have lost ground in both absolute terms and in comparison to households with automobiles. Both of these phenomena— the burden of keeping a car and the income penalty associated with not doing so—appear to be artifacts of America’s car-oriented built environment. 

We don’t level the playing field by increasing access to the thing that has caused the problem. Instead, we need to admit that, when someone goes outside to head to work, only to hear the stomach-churning silence of an engine that won’t turn over, they should not be marooned at home. We need to make walkability a priority to ensure that no one is falling behind when they can’t get a ride, when there’s no bus, or when they need to make multiple stops. 

We also need to consider the ways that we can make multi-modal transportation as viable an option as possible. That can mean finding ways to knit together our transit systems, encouraging folks to use trains, buses, and even water taxis as a way to extend what’s walkable for them. A recent study from Montgomery County, Maryland found that connecting pedestrians to transit more comfortably would require fairly simple steps, like “short-term improvements (such as reducing speed limits and installing crosswalks) as well as medium- to long-term improvements (such as the installation of wider sidewalks and sidewalk buffers).” These are simple ways to help people use existing transportation and to guide future projects. 

There will always be people who can’t or don’t drive. And if those folks end up living in one of the many, many American cities or towns with precisely zero transit options, they’re going to be out there, walking and rolling to wherever they need to go. It’s our job as activists to ensure there’s a sidewalk waiting to get them there.

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