In the United States, adults are not walking or cycling significantly more than they were two decades ago, and children are actually walking and cycling less, a new study reports.
Those discouraging findings underscore that “much more needs to be done” to make active forms of transportation safer and more convenient, say the study’s authors.
Federal funding for policies, programs and infrastructure that encouraging walking and bicycling more than tripled between 2000 and 2018, from $297 million to $916 million. Yet that higher amount still represents only about 2 percent of the U.S. government’s transportation budget, points out Ralph Buehler, the study’s lead author and chair of the urban affairs and planning program at Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs, in a released statement.
That’s not nearly enough to make a significant difference in helping people make walking and cycling part of their daily routine, he adds.
And we should be encouraging people to walk and cycle more. Plenty of research has shown that integrating active travel into our daily lives can help improve our physical and psychological health. It’s also a cheaper and more practical way than joining a gym or fitness center of meeting recommended levels of physical activity.
The new study, published online this week in the Journal of Transport and Health, was conducted to see whether the past two decades of research and government investments in active transportation has had any effect on how often and frequently Americans walk or cycle.
For the study, Buehler and his colleagues compared responses from the National Household Travel Survey from the years 2001 and 2017. About 200,000 Americans aged 5 to 65-plus took part in the two surveys. The questions included ones about the frequency, duration and distance the participants walked or cycled. (Parents provided answers for their young children.)
The researchers found a slight increase in the daily walking rates over the 16-year period of the study. The share of Americans who reported walking an average of 30 minutes a day, for example, increased from 7.2 percent to 7.9 percent. There was essentially no change, however, in the cycling rates. The percentage of Americans who said they averaged 30 minutes of cycling a day was 0.9 percent in both years, and the proportion who said they averaged at least 10 minutes a day fell from 1.5 percent in 2001 to 1.3 percent in 2017.
Walking increased the most among middle-aged adults aged 25 to 64, among people in both the highest and lowest household income quartiles, and among people without a car.
In fact, there was an inverse relationship between car ownership and walking. The more cars in a household, the less walking its residents did.
“It is not at all surprising that the small increase in walking was in dense, urban cities like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where measures have been taken to improve infrastructure and programs and policies have been adopted to make walking and cycling easier and safer,” says Buehler.
The walking rates were roughly the same among men and women, but men were three times more likely to cycle.
“In general, women will only cycle if they think the entire ride will be safe,” says Buehler. “If they perceive that there will be any danger at all along the way they will resist.”
Cycling rates increased the fastest among highly educated, employed, high-income, white men between the ages 16 and 44. Here’s one statistic from the study that underscores that trend: In 2001, there was no difference in cycling rates between university graduates and people without a high school diploma. In 2017, cycling was roughly two times more common among college grads than among those who didn’t graduate from high school.
“Some of those increases may have resulted from higher-income groups moving to denser, mixed-use, inner-city neighborhoods with short trip distances,” the researchers write.
Yet, that doesn’t entirely explain the trend.
“Recent research has criticized American cities for providing better walking and cycling facilities in higher-income neighborhoods while often ignoring the needs of marginalized communities of low income and color,” the researchers explain. “Walking and cycling conditions in low-income neighborhoods are often dangerous, inconvenient, or stressful.”
“Equity should be an important aspect of transportation policy,” they stress.
Another troubling trend uncovered in the study is the significant decrease in walking and cycling rates among children and young teens aged 5 to 15. For example, 2.4 percent of young people cycled for an average of 30 minutes a day in 2001. Sixteen years later, that figure had fallen to 0.9 percent.
Sadly, these declines are not new. They’re a continuation of a trend that started back in the 1970s — one that has reduced “an important source of children’s regular physical activity and might be a contributor to rising childhood obesity rates in the United States,” Buehler and his co-authors point out.
New measures needed
The researchers say any new measures to increase active travel should focus on children, teens and older adults, whose rates of walking and cycling are either lower than average or on the decline.
“Many studies indicate that separate, protected cycling facilities and traffic-calmed neighborhood streets would help encourage more cycling among women, children, and seniors, as well as by vulnerable or risk-averse individuals,” they write. “Special efforts must also be made to ensure safe and convenient walking and cycling conditions for low-income and other disadvantaged communities, which have been inadequately served in many American cities.”
Such efforts would benefit not just individuals, but the broader society.
“Physical activity through walking and cycling has the potential of greatly improving the physical, mental, and social health of both men and women, all ages, and all income levels,” they add. “Unlike formal exercise programs, walking and cycling can be integrated into daily routines and are affordable for virtually everyone.”
FMI: You can read the study online in the March issue of the Journal of Transport and Health.