Public Health Experts Give America an “F” on Walkability

Photo: National Physical Activity Plan
Photo: National Physical Activity Plan

Walking should be an easy way to get some physical activity and exercise. But America has spent decades engineering the simple act of using your own two feet out of daily life, and the public health community is starting to speak up about it.

The U.S. gets failing grades on walkability in a withering new report [PDF] from the National Physical Activity Plan, a coalition that includes public health behemoths like the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association.

The coalition handed out a report card that consists almost entirely of “F”s across a range of walking measures:

The National Physical Activity Plan's report card for walkability in the U.S.
The National Physical Activity Plan’s report card for walkability in the U.S.

Here’s a closer look at a few of these grades.

Funding for pedestrian infrastructure: F

NPAP looked at how much states spend on biking and walking infrastructure per capita. Based on the recommendation of active transportation advocates that 3 percent of surface transportation spending should go to walking and biking infrastructure, NPAP set $5.26 per capita as the baseline annual level of funding for a passing grade.

As a whole, America comes in at about half that level of investment, with the average state spending just $2.47 per capita. Only five states met the $5.26 threshold, hence the failing grade.

States meeting the criteria: Alaska, Montana, Delaware, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

Safety: F

Pedestrian deaths are on the rise in the U.S., with 6,000 fatalities last year, a sad reflection of America’s terrible traffic fatality record in relation to peer nations.

While asserting that no pedestrian deaths should be considered acceptable, NPAP set a threshold of 0.75 annual pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people as the baseline for a good safety record. In 2015, the national pedestrian fatality rate was more than twice as high: 1.67 deaths per 100,000 people.

Only four states met the standard, hence the “F” grade. However, the states that did meet the standard tended to be small and sparsely populated, without large urban centers where walking is more common, which highlights the difficulty in assessing pedestrian safety.

States meeting the criteria: Idaho, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.

Transit: F

Walking and transit go hand-in-hand. NPAP cites studies showing that regular transit riders walk more than other people. Places where people can get around by transit tend to be places where walking is convenient too. But transit quality is poor in America, and ridership is abysmally low.

NPAP looked at whether at least 6 percent of commuters in a given state ride transit. The national average is 5.1 percent. Just seven states meet the 6 percent threshold, although a few others — California, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania — come close.

States meeting the criteria: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, and Hawaii.

Walkable Neighborhoods: D

If your neighborhood has sidewalks and you can buy groceries a short distance from home, walking will come a lot more naturally. Most places in America lack these basic ingredients of walkability, however.

NPAP looked for states where at least 30 percent of people live in “highly walkable neighborhoods,” as defined by the EPA’s Smart Location Database (which factors in population density, intersection density, and other measures). Fewer than a third of states — just 16 — meet the 30 percent threshold.

States meeting the criteria: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington.

  • TakeFive

    Experts? I’m an expert! All of my life (and I’m old) I’ve had no problems walking, biking or getting plenty of exercise aside from sports activities. Volleyball anyone? But then I’m an expert on West of the Mississippi. Have these so-called experts spent any time there or in the Sunbelt states or Midwest?

    It’s like air, it’s out there for the breathing. Go walk, bike or whatever you wish. Treadmill your thing? Fine. I give America an A-. If there’s something in your breakfast that sours your view…. then open your door and go walk.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    Well, I think that these health experts are talking about walking for “transportation,” not just recreation. I.e. “utilitarian” walking, not just exercise walking. U.S. folks ironically (dumbly) take escalators to go to the gym! We need cities and towns that have ADA-accessible sidewalks and safe crossings of all roads EVERYWHERE, on both sides of all roads! We need to reduce pedestrian crashes in urbanized areas (by reducing automobile speeds and speeding). We need to make all roads everywhere safe for all people ages 8-80 to walk along and across (at pedestrian-scaled intervals). Children should all be able to walk safely to school.

  • TakeFive

    I walked to school through snowdrifts and sub-zero temperatures not unlike what Chicago might experience. Fortunately for my kids the walking was much easier and they never had any issues.

    All I can tell you is that Chicago et all is not all of America and I still give it grade of A-.

  • Is this a serious comment or a troll?

    I mean, seriously. Anyone who doesn’t think that there’s a problem with walkability is living in a bubble. Anyone who doesn’t think there’s a problem with bikeability is being intentionally blind.

  • TakeFive

    Hahahaha… One of the ‘experts’ I presume. So how many cities and states have you lived in to make you such a fine expert on America?

  • jimlawruk

    6000 pedestrian fatalities is unacceptable, we spend only $2.26 per capita compared to the thousands on healthcare, walking to a grocery store or to school “should” be as easy as breathing, but unfortunately for most Americans, it is not.

  • TakeFive

    That’s tragic. I’m aware of the Top Ten causes of crashes and ‘distracted driving’ is numero uno. When I was a young adult the biggest distraction I faced was maybe a pretty girl walking on the sidewalk. I can assure you I never ran over any pretty girls. It’s also amazing how many of the pedestrians that find walking so unsafe walk right in front of moving vehicles apparently oblivious to the world. Certainly it happens all too often in Phoenix.

    Healthcare is a whole other topic. Would you prefer the conservative or liberal fix for that?

  • Alan

    No you’re right, Im sure you much wiser than all of the doctors and experts involved in this study. We should let them know theyre wrong.

  • Matt R

    This is not about the previous generation, this is about today- this morning. I don’t know about you, but I walked a mile to my bus this morning, and in that mile, I had to walk 5 blocks with no sidewalk, and cars whizzing past me at 45 mph (in a 15 mph zone no less with speed humps) totally oblivious to me; twice I had cars almost plow into me at a cross walk; and the final crossing involved passing through an on-ramp to the I-101, that involved about 30 cars all illegally blocking the street at that intersection because so many cars were blocking the intersection. Which meant it was downright scary for me because none of these cars gave a crap about me- it was all about dodging the next light. This was just one morning walk.

    So yeah- F is on the money for me.

  • TakeFive

    Doctors? What kind of docs? MD Docs? Psychology Phd’s? Where do they live? Do you have any idea how many docs there are in America? Do they all have the same opinion?

  • TakeFive

    That’s actually quite interesting and I wouldn’t argue with your personal grade. Honestly I can’t imagine walking a mile to the buss stop; I’m 2/3 blocks away should I need to take the bus.

  • Do you even understand what it means to study a problem?

    Let me explain it to you, it means that they’ve looked farther than their own driveway.

    It means, that they don’t have an opinion. They have data.

    It’s so sad how people believe their own ignorant opinions are just as good as scientific data.

  • Frank Kotter

    European wife working as a stewardess calls from Detroit (Dearborn): ‘You’re not going to believe this, I just got picked up by the cops while I was walking to get some groceries at a supermarket I saw out of the window. They wanted to change me with trespassing for being on the street. I asked if it was illegal to walk to the store, they said ‘yes’.’

    I googled it, she was right. There is no legal way to walk from her hotel to anywhere else. It’s an extreme example but indicative. Have a look for yourselves

  • Jesse

    We can’t all play the saxophone expertly like you as exercise. That’s why America got an F.

  • TakeFive

    One quick example. I looked at a study of (Colorado) CDOT’s measly budget for mobility/biking compared to other states by COPIRG. Was it true? Sure. Was it misleading? By a Country Mile. COPIRG’s lengthy pdf was mostly misleading trash.

    State’s budgets vary wildly as to revenue and allocation. For example, AZ collects 5.2% sales tax while CO collects 2.9% sales tax. Average sales tax collected in CO is 8.25% but most of it is collected at the local level and consequently lots of stuff is funded at the local (and not state) level. AZ is much different.

    Just as significant CDOT plays with a lot of Federal $’s. Some of it is an annual allocation and some of it is project-specific grants. CDOT has built miles upon miles of wonderful bike/ped trails all over the state from project specific grant/funding – which has nothing to do with their annual budget. Their budget process (by law) allocates only 10% towards mobility.

    Lastly, CO has intentionally stayed out of the transit business; they’ve also intentionally allowed areas to set up their own taxable transit districts. For example Denver metro (RTD) collects waaay more sales tax (%) than does NYC which relies much more on state funding.

    Consider elections or the makeup of the Senate; The vast majority of America is outside of urban areas. So when you generalize a study of America, who’s America are you referring to?

    With me CONTEXT is everything and if you don’t understand that then how do you conclude anything valid from studies?

  • TakeFive

    lolol… well played.

  • Adrian Horczak
  • Umm….what? So you understand all of this yet you still insist on believing your experiences are representative, and that this problem with walkability and bikeability is all invented.

    Goodness. Irony at it’s most potent.

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