Is the link between public health and active
transportation — especially walkability — driv-
ing much action nationwide?
Interest is definitely growing and that includes within
the federal government. The CDC collaborates with
the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Transportation Research Board at the National Academies of
Science. According to the CDC-funded 2014 Bicycling
and Walking Benchmarking Report ( https://www.bike-walkalliance.org/resources/benchmarking), an increasing
number of states and large cities have set goals to increase
walking and bicycling and have adopted pedestrian and
bicyclist master plans.
What evidence is there that improving walkabil-
ity can improve public health?
There is quite a bit of evidence that people are more
physically active in communities and neighborhoods that
have infrastructure and policies that support walking and
bicycling. However, it’s much harder to measure whether
changes to the transportation environment actually lead
to improved health or health behaviors such as increased
physical activity. Change, both to the environment and
in people’s behavior, occurs slowly and the health benefits of increased physical activity take time to accrue.
Transportation and health impact models can help
quantify future health benefits and risks of various
transportation scenarios. Some health impact model-
ing studies have projected a net health benefit of shifting
transportation share from driving to other modes like
walking and biking. In addition, there is some evidence
from Europe and China that people who walk or bicycle
for transportation have better health outcomes com-
pared to those who don’t.
What are the biggest challenges in getting
people to walk more in their daily lives and
what are the biggest opportunities?
One important challenge is distance. People are unlikely
to walk or ride a bicycle to a destination that is considered too far away to reach in a reasonable amount
of time or with a reasonable amount of effort. Situating residential areas closer to employment or
shopping centers is important for encouraging biking
and walking to everyday activities. Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure (sidewalks, bike
lanes, trails) to make active transportation a safe and
One area of opportunity is travel to work. Our recent
research (Active Transportation Surveillance – United
States, 1999-2012) shows that 20 to 30 percent of
Americans report recent walking or biking for transportation, but only 2 to 3 percent of adult workers
report using one of those modes as their primary means
of transportation to or from work in the past week.
As public health and planning professionals work to
redesign cities and communities to better support
walking and biking, active commuting could be an
increasingly important source of physical activity in
the United States.
Photo by Gary Howe Photo by Gary Howe