To increase walking, think bigger than the commute

By Megan Link

For most people, changing how they get to work isn’t an easy task. According to the last national travel survey, almost one in ten people drive to work and only four percent walk. As Jeff Speck writes in a recent article for NextCity, events like National Walk to Work Day focus on a goal that decades of suburban growth and road design have made impossible for most. It potentially distracts from the changes in community design that would make walking more attractive, including for purposes other than commuting. 

Walking has many benefits for personal health and the environment, but when the risk of being killed by vehicles continues to rise, walking becomes substantially more dangerous and unappealing. The death rate for pedestrians has increased 50% in the last 10 years, due partly to larger vehicles and streets designed like highways. Smart Growth America’s report, Dangerous by Design, notes this substantial increase, and its disproportionate impact on lower income communities and people of color. 

That means planning and designing for walking is critically important, and there is evidence that incremental improvements can have an impact. Studies show how dedicated efforts to increase walking to work through comprehensive plans are effective, but only if those plans are updated regularly and account for a broader picture of the needs and impacts of pedestrian activity.  

When it comes to increasing walking, biking, and transit use, there are also plenty of opportunities outside of the normal commute. Fewer than 20 percent of all trips were to and from work prior to the pandemic, and that number could be even lower now that many people work remotely. While they may not be able to walk to work, many people could be walking to their neighbors’ houses, biking to the store, or taking transit to events.  

Increasing walkability overall requires changes in development, design, and accessibility to create safe routes and complementary development patterns. That goes beyond comprehensive plans to include zoning codes, design standards, funding formulas, and performance measures. Accessibility analysis, for example, can show gaps in the pedestrian network and discontinuities created by development patterns. Focusing on design standards that reduce speeds and approaches like Complete Streets allow for a more comfortable and safer route to continue to encourage mode shift. Jeff Speck in his article also describes several programs to champion instead of walking to work days. Those include developing transit-oriented development policies to plan strategically for affordable housing near transit, parking reforms such as reducing minimum parking requirements, and taking a fix-it-first approach to highway investments.  

Photo Credit: Ono Kosuki via Pexels, unmodified. License.