Affluent Americans reap the benefits of active lifestyles while avoiding the worst risks

By Chris McCahill 

Walking in the U.S. comes with a combination of safety risks and health benefits. That tradeoff has a lot to do with where you live and what demographic group you fall in, according to several new studies. Overall, the most disadvantaged groups—people of color and those in lower income brackets—often face the greatest risks while getting the fewest benefits.

One new study in Orange County, Florida, found that major urban arterials pose a much greater risk to pedestrians in low-income areas. In wealthier areas, arterials have no significant impact on pedestrian safety, while buffered sidewalks appear to increase the risks. According to the authors, the explanation lies in the fact that people in low-income areas tend to walk more out of necessity, whereas wealthier individuals are more likely to walk when the conditions are safe and comfortable—i.e., along calmer roads with safer pedestrian facilities. They elaborate:

These differences begin to make sense once one considers differences in the purposes for which lower-income and more affluent households undertake walking trips. Studies examining these differences found that walking for lower-income households is typically undertaken for utilitarian purposes, such as travelling to work or school. These are necessary trips that will be undertaken regardless of the quality of the built environment and, as a result, when they occur in areas with hazardous thoroughfares, such as arterials, would be expected to result in an increase in pedestrian crashes. Persons in affluent households, by contrast, undertake walk trips principally for recreational purposes such as exercise or dog walking. Unpleasant or unsafe environments, such as arterials, can be readily avoided by choosing routes that avoid these environments, driving to another, more accommodating environment to undertake the walk trip, or foregoing the walk trip altogether.

The researchers also found that Black residents were at higher risk, regardless of income and other factors. “This relationship was particularly notable with pedestrian crashes,” they note, “with a 1% increase in the percentage of Black residents in a lower-income community being associated with a 1% increase in pedestrian crashes.” They offer two potential explanations: 1) cultural and societal factors (like racial bias in yielding behavior), and 2) that elected officials and transportation professionals are failing to meet the safety needs of predominantly Black neighborhoods.

A second study based on a survey of 1,000 Michigan residents suggests the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these disparities. It found that white Americans and those who frequently walked and biked for recreation before the pandemic were more likely to maintain or increase those activities. People with less education, those with lower incomes, and people of color, however, tended to walk and bike less during the pandemic. The authors point to a range of potential factors including poor infrastructure; reduced transit service; loss of jobs, daycare, or health insurance; and other lifestyle changes.

The study concludes:

Policies are needed to mitigate the negative impact by COVID-19 and cultivate a more active lifestyle long term. Complete Streets, Context Sensitive Solutions, Safe Routes to School, and promoting public transit use are among the policies being considered and implemented in Michigan. Those communities with a higher percentage of elderly residents, people of color, or people of lower income or education level should be targeted due to the disparate impact of the pandemic in walking and biking behaviors found by this study.

Photo Credit: Daryan Shamkhali via Unsplash, unmodified. License