Walkable Communities Save Lives

How urgent would your work feel if you knew you were saving lives? Healthy community advocates often tolerate pushbacks and delays on new sidewalks or needed crosswalks as we talk about how improved physical environments enhance health, create a sense of community and even have economic benefits. But let’s remember that we are also preventing injuries and death.

Early in my career promoting walkable environments, a driver killed a 13-year-old girl in my community while she was crossing a very busy intersection on her way home from school. The circumstances were tragic and, as a mother myself, I was deeply affected by her family’s grief. It was an awakening about how very important—and urgent—our work is.

Unfortunately, this story is not an isolated incident. In 2009, approximately 23,000 children were injured and 250 were killed while walking or bicycling in the United States. From 2000–2006, 30% of traffic deaths for children occurred while they were walking or bicycling. Moreover, children are not the only ones at risk. People ages 65 and older accounted for 20% of all pedestrian deaths and an estimated 9% of all pedestrians injured in 2012. Creating walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, therefore, is critically necessary to protect our children and our grandparents.

I love the philosophy of 8-80 cities, which states that if we create cities that are good for both an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, then we’ll create successful cities for everyone. As advocates for equitable and healthy communities, we need to take that even further by ensuring that every 8-year-old and every 80-year-old, no matter where they live, can safely walk and bike in their neighborhoods. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do.

Not everyone has access to safe environments for physical activity. Significant differences exist across geographic types, income levels, race and age. We know, for example, that walking is more dangerous for people of color. In a Centers for Disease Control study, the pedestrian death rate for Latino males in Atlanta was six times greater than for white males. In addition, African Americans make up 12% of the US population yet account for 20% of pedestrian deaths. We also know that twice as many low-income children walk or bike to school than affluent children and 65 percent of families below the poverty line do not own a car. Yet the streets in lower-income communities are more dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists because they lack protective infrastructure and street design.

What can we do? Safe Routes to School projects focus on infrastructure improvements, student traffic education, and driver enforcement that improve safety for children, many of whom already walk or bicycle in unsafe conditions. Studies have shown that Safe Routes to School programs decrease childhood bicycle and pedestrian collision rates. In addition, fully implemented Complete Streets policies can expand the radius in which families can safely travel by foot. There are many other strategies, as well, for creating safer environments for active transportation and physical activity.

No matter what the chosen strategy is, however, healthy community leaders must authentically engage community residents for equitable and lasting change. In response to the young girl’s death in my community, neighbors rallied around her family. With collective action, they gained new sidewalks and lower speed limits. They also initiated a state law that required school crossings near any school located on a street with high-speed traffic. It’s a powerful experience to hear the voices of those who are most affected.

Let’s not waste another day, or life, as we create safe and walkable places for all.