Safe Routes to School National Partnership: Working to Make Underserved Communities Safer for Walking and Biking

October 1, 2015, Department, by Sara Zimmerman

Infastructure for safe walking and bicycling is often lacking in underserved areas.[Ed. Note: This month, we host a guest Advocacy column from one of our best colleagues in policy and advocacy, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. NRPA joins all active transportation advocates in mourning the recent passing of Deb Hubsmith, the founder of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Hubsmith was a visionary leader and a reminder of how one committed person can inspire an entire movement for healthier kids and stronger and safer communities. We honor and celebrate her amazing legacy and commit to continuing her great work.]
As parks and recreation professionals know, Americans are suffering from an obesity epidemic and a physical inactivity crisis. These problems are affecting Americans across the board but are hitting communities of color and low-income communities the hardest. Walking or bicycling to get around — whether to work, school, the park or other destinations — has a key role to play in helping to increase physical activity and improve health. Why? Because it can provide an easy way to integrate more activity into everyday routines. I saw this firsthand when I started cycling the 4-mile commute to my last job and suddenly started getting an extra 40 minutes of exercise per day without adding any time to my commute. As a recent NRPA report on Safe Routes to Parks shows, “People who have easy access to parks are 47 percent more likely to walk at the daily recommended level than those who do not have easy access.”
But even though walking and bicycling are healthy and affordable ways to get around, these activities are currently more dangerous in low-income communities and communities of color than others. What do those dangers look like? Studies show that children and adults from low-income households have a higher risk of being injured or killed while walking than residents of upper-income areas. Nationally, fatality rates are twice as high for people walking in low-income metro areas versus upper income areas, and similarly, Latino and African-American pedestrian fatality rates are twice that of whites.
What’s the explanation for this? Decades of disparate investment and governmental policies have resulted in low-income communities having poorer infrastructure for walking and bicycling and more high-speed, high-traffic roads. While almost 90 percent of high-income areas have sidewalks on one or both sides of the street, in low-income communities that percentage drops to less than 50 percent. We see the same discrepancies when comparing other street design factors that make for safe walking and bicycling — low-income communities have fewer streets with lighting, fewer crosswalks and fewer street features to slow traffic or protect people on foot or bicycle.
But these aren’t the only factors that affect the experience of low-income people and people of color walking and bicycling. Higher rates of crime and violence in many low-income areas can discourage walking and bicycling or make those activities frightening and dangerous. Drivers also treat white and black pedestrians differently, with one preliminary study indicating that twice as many cars pass without stopping when African-Americans wait to cross streets at crosswalks compared to when whites wait. As initiatives such as Vision Zero — a multinational road traffic safety project that started in Sweden and that aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries in road traffic — focus on enforcement efforts in the quest to reduce injuries from vehicle collisions, it is crucial that they develop concerted strategies to ensure that these efforts protect low-income people and people of color, rather than target them.

Despite the hazards, walking and bicycling are already prevalent among low-income people and people of color. Low-income people have the highest rates of walking and bicycling to work. Latino and African-American children are more likely than white students to bike or walk to school, and low-income children are twice as likely to walk to school as children from higher-income families. Moreover, although surveys usually don’t count walking trips when they accompany another mode of transportation, more than 60 percent of transit riders walk to get to and from their transit stops, and a high percentage of transit users are low- to moderate-income or African-American. 

High rates of low-income Americans and Americans of color walking and bicycling, dangerous conditions for doing so, and a huge health need for more physical activity — all of these show the close links between equity and active transportation. As we determine next steps, we need to follow the lead of low-income communities; address issues of concern, such as gentrification, racial profiling and crime; and work to see substantial community-directed investments in making low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color safer for walking and bicycling. The Safe Routes to School National Partnership has laid out some of these possibilities in our recent publication, At the Intersection of Active Transportation and Equity: Joining Forces to Make Communities Healthier and Fairer, and we look forward to partnering with the park and recreation community and others as we work to make sure that everyone can get where they need to go safely and healthily. 


Sara Zimmerman is the Technical Assistance Director at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.