U.S. gets “F” for design and policy to support walking while pedestrian fatalities rise

By Robbie Webber

A national coalition of prominent health organizations issued a failing grade to the country as a whole and the vast majority of states when they looked at whether community designs and policies support walking. At the same time, recently-released traffic safety data show a rising number of pedestrian fatalities at a time when driving is increasing.

The National Physical Activity Plan released its first Report Card on Walking and Walkable Communities to “assess the extent to which the U.S. population and U.S. communities meet selected standards for participating in walking and providing physical and social supports for walking  behavior.” The NPAP is a coalition of some of the largest health advocacy and disease-related groups in the country, and the report card assessed states in the following areas:

  • Adult walking behavior
  • Children and youth walking behavior
  • Pedestrian infrastructure
  • Safety
  • Pedestrian policies
  • Institutional policies
  • Public transportation
  • Walkable neighborhoods
  • Walking programs

While the last area received an incomplete grade, the only area that rose to even a C nationally was adult walking behavior. Adults are walking, whether for transportation, recreation, or pleasure. But in other areas, things were not so bright. Pedestrian policies and walkable neighborhoods got Ds for the country, and the rest of the categories were rated F. In each category, some states met standards set by the group, but passing grades were rare, and no state met the standards in all areas.

In the safety category, only four states met the standard, defined as having fewer than 0.75 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 population. The report defined safe communities as those that, “…create infrastructure and establish policies and practices so that pedestrians are safe from motor vehicles, criminal behavior, and other personal threats.”

Amy Eyler, associate professor at the Brown School, serves on the advisory panel and says she is not surprised by the results. “The U.S. is very car-centric, with planning and transportation priorities mostly focused on automobiles.”

Walking does not seem to be getting any safer, as highlighted by the recently-released 2016 NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, which showed a 9 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities over 2015 as well as a 5.6 percent increase in all fatalities. The pedestrian fatality count is the highest since 1990.

This is part of a disturbing trend since 1996. Those outside motor vehicles now make up a rising share of all traffic fatalities. Fatalities for those inside vehicles—both passengers and drivers of cars, light trucks, large trucks, and buses—have decreased from 80 percent to 67 percent of fatalities. Fatalities outside of vehicles—pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and other non-occupants—have gone from 20 percent to 33 percent of all fatalities.

If walking had been increasing as a transportation mode, it might be expected that there would be some increase in overall number of deaths, but that does not seem to be the case. Driving is up, and other modes are down as gas prices stay affordable and the economy recovers, pointed out Steve Polzin’s analysis of travel trends. The National Household Travel Survey—due out at the end of the year—will shed more light on our transportation choices and trends.

What’s happening? It seems like with overall pedestrian numbers staying low, but driving on the increase, the dangers of walking are more and more pronounced. Fatalities rise faster than VMT, but we also know how beneficial good design can be. We can also keep our eye on things like distracted driving, but for now that doesn’t seem to be a key factor.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.