Low-income communities can benefit most from accessible cities

By Aaron Westling 

 America’s outward, car-oriented growth has meant that people now travel much farther for basic needs. According to new research, only 12.1% of trips to basic amenities happen within a 15-minute walking radius of residents’ homes in the median U.S. neighborhood, and the frequency of those types of trips varies greatly depending on income.  

 Low-income households take more trips within a 15-minute radius of their home. Specifically, those who live in neighborhoods in the bottom income decile make 51% of their trips within this 15-minute radius while that number drops to 17% for those who live in the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods. As shown in the figure below, this trend holds true both in cities with robust public transit such as New York as well as in auto-centric metros like Atlanta and Detroit. This finding is notable considering how expensive it is to own a car, which in America is the second largest household cost after housing.  

Income deciles and 15-minute usage in percentage of trips.
Source: The 15-Minute City Quantified Using Mobility Data

Making more trips within 15-minutes of their homes naturally results in lower-income households being more likely to use active transportation for their trips, regardless of whether they own a car. Research has found that low-income households that do not own a car take 23-33% more walking trips and 35-86% more cycling trips per week than higher-income households, while low-income households with a car still make 13% more of their trips by walking and 33% more by cycling.  

And while that might be good for their wallets and their health, it can pose a disproportionate safety risk. According to Smart Growth America, “Lower-income neighborhoods are also much more likely to contain major arterial roads built for high speeds and higher traffic volumes at intersections, exacerbating dangerous conditions for people walking.” The figure below shows that a pedestrian is more than three times as likely to be killed in the country’s lowest-income census tracts compared to the highest. So, while we know that lower-income communities are more likely to walk and bike in their neighborhoods, often out of necessity, our transportation decisions make this a dangerous prospect. 

Pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people and census tract median household income.
Source: Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design

Despite unfounded fears of the 15-minute city being circulated in the press, allowing residents to access their necessities locally should be a priority. Unfortunately, many transportation-related decisions have been made on the false notion that moving cars quickly will improve access. Instead, it has led to sprawl and dangerous conditions in many of our remaining walkable communities. SSTI has worked with agencies across the U.S. to implement accessibility analysis and shift the focus away from fast moving cars, ultimately creating places that allow people of all incomes to safely access their necessities close to home, reduce travel costs, reduce pollution, and create healthier communities.  

Photo Credit: Clem Onojeghuo via Pexels, unmodified. License.