Americans don’t walk – but it’s not because we’re lazy

September 11, 2014

Most Americans don’t walk for one reason: In most communities, walking is both inconvenient and unsafe. At least that’s what F. Kaid Benfield, Special Counsel for Urban Solutions, Natural Resources Defense Council, argues in a recently published excerpt from his book of essays, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities. Americans lose out on the health, environmental and other benefits of walking because of infrastructural decisions that leave pedestrians at risk.

Benfield’s sources include the National Geographic Greendex, which ranks, among other factors, walking and transit use (Americans came in “dead last” on both of those two); as well as U.S. Census data, which reveals that only 6.5 percent of Americans commute to work by walking. The figures are more astounding when compared to walking rates in other parts of the world: While 34 percent of Americans reported walking to destinations, such as shops, schools, and jobs, that rate doubled for people in Spain and Germany. Even Britain, Canada and Sweden — commonly known for their less-than-friendly climes — had higher walking rates than the U.S. The U.S. came in last on bicycling rates as well.

Why don’t Americans get out and walk? Benfield claims it’s due to inconvenience and danger, both of which are often the unfortunate result of number of poor infrastructure decisions. He explains, “[F]or most Americans in most places, walking – that most basic and human method of movement, and the one most important to our health – is all but impossible. Maybe not literally impossible, but inconvenient at best, and tragically dangerous way too often.” Aside for downtown areas, there are few communities that have destinations within walking distance of people’s homes — many American communities were specifically planned around car use.

Startling statistics highlight just how unsafe it is to walk in this country. Smart Growth America stats show that more than 47,000 pedestrians were killed in the U.S. from 2003 through 2012, or, as Benfield notes, “the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly every month. On top of that, more than 676,000 pedestrians were injured over the decade, a number equivalent to a car or truck striking a pedestrian every eight minutes.”

As we’ve reported before (check out posts on America’s least crossable street and on car-dependent towns), this country’s roads are replete with dangerous obstacles. Poor road design may be to blame, according to Benfield. Take Woodbridge, Virginia, suggests Benfield. The community has a mega mall, a Marine Corps base, and, says Benfield, “several auto dealerships and automobile service facilities, some single-family homes, some apartments, a trailer park, and a self-storage facility. All seem sort of plopped down by happenstance.” There are only the “crudest accommodations for walking” in this area — no sidewalks and no crosswalks except for those at “long-distance intervals.”

Woodbridge’s car-friendly design encourages vehicle use, but is a danger to any pedestrians brave enough to attempt walking here. Case in point: “If you were, say, an employee at the Pep Boys auto parts store on the west side of Route 1… and you wanted to grab a sandwich for lunch at Wendy’s right across the street, you’d have to walk nearly a mile, round trip, to cross the road with the benefit of a traffic signal.” The trip would eat up a half-hour of your lunch, and 50-percent of the trip would involve no sidewalks. Many, if not most, would attempt to cross the street using the “shortest and most direct route” regardless of oncoming traffic. Plus, if the pedestrian is hit while doing so, under Virginia law, he or she — not the driver — is at fault.

There are solutions to the problem of un-walkable communities, but these favor more developed areas. City planner and advocate Jeff Speck offers a 10-step plan to create ped-friendly urban areas in suburban regions, including such steps as restricting free parking, encouraging bike use, and including more housing downtown. Yet non-urban areas like Woodbridge, argues Benfield, “the tragedy is that [such areas are] ‘urbanized’ enough to have some foot traffic, but not urban enough to protect it.” Over time, economic development may help bring pedestrian-friendly design to areas like these, but it won’t happen overnight.

Other solutions include those used in Orlando, FL, one of the most dangerous regions for pedestrians: new sidewalks, increased traffic calming measures, modified bus stops, building overpasses, improved lighting, and new audible pedestrian signals. Yet Benfield doesn’t delve into the question of personal choice, which also has a positive impact on pedestrian safety. One positive example? As Speck notes, the age of suburban sprawl is drawing to a close, as millennials now largely opt for living in urban areas and choosing mass transit, biking or walking over car ownership.

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Category: Pedestrian safety, Resources

About the Author ()

Katy is a writer, reporter and editor who, in addition to writing for RoadTrafficSigns, has worked with the United Nations Development Programme, Hamptons magazine, Hearst Corporation, The Daily Mail, People Magazine, and a variety of other publications and nonprofits. After graduating with honors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and distinctions on her thesis and in the consumer journalism seminar, she moved to Milan, Italy. In Italy, she worked as a writer and consultant for an international magazine, editing and translating text and reporting on such events as the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the annual design fair. A born and raised New Yorker, she has lived in three of five boroughs, relying quite a bit on public transport until getting her driver's license at the admittedly belated age of 21.

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