Study finds rich and poor most likely to walk

By Chet Edelman

As a percentage of all commutes, walking accounts for less than three percent of all trips in the United States. But not all groups in the country walk at the same rate. A new study from the University of Virginia reveals that a distinct socioeconomic divide exists. More specifically, walking rates are noticeably greater among high- and low-income adults compared to middle-income individuals—a pattern that holds for all trip purposes and levels of land use density.

In order to parse out trends in walking behavior, author Andrew Mondschein used National Household Survey travel data from 2001, 2009, and 2017. Controlling for factors such as income and education, Mondschein attempted to discern which socioeconomic groups were more or less likely to walk. Additionally, he broke down walking rates by trip purpose (i.e., recreational vs. commute walking) and land use density levels. The goal was to identify whether walking rates varied when accounting for trip types and suburban and urban environments.

After analyzing the data, Mondschein found that in each of the years surveyed, walking rates were greatest for individuals at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum and lowest for those in the middle. In terms of trip purpose, the same distribution held constant. Regardless of whether walking trips were categorized by recreation, commuting to work, or for shopping, middle-income individuals tended to walk the least. These findings seem to challenge previous studies on walking trip purpose, which imply that as income rises, recreation walking increases and work trip walking decreases. In terms of density, while walking rates were generally higher in urban neighborhoods, they also remained highest for low- and high-income groups even in more suburban areas.

While by no means definitive, the study attributes the clear economic divide in walking to a number of factors. One of the explanations mentioned is that lower income individuals are often forced to walk more by necessity, while wealthier individuals walk more because they can afford to live in denser, more walkable environments. In fact, in urban areas across the United States some of the American Planning Association’s designated “great neighborhoods” are increasingly becoming some of the most expensive in which to live. As a result, middle-income families who formerly occupied these areas are finding themselves moving to more affordable but also more vehicle-oriented communities.

However, despite increasing unaffordability in U.S. cities, the study found that from 2001 to 2017, walking rates actually increased among middle-income individuals—a trend that reflects a broader shift in overall transportation habits in the country of more walking and less driving. As cities and communities place a greater emphasis on walkability, it will be important to note whether these changes affect the walking behaviors of socioeconomic groups evenly.

Chet Edelman is a Project Assistant at SSTI.