By Emilie Bahr
The car was once seen in this country as the ultimate vehicle of freedom.
It was a symbol of unfettered access and mobility that could take an occupant wherever he or she wanted to go in a manner that was glamorous, convenient and fast.
Yet roughly 100 years after our automotive experiment began, the thing that was once an expression of status and a tool in attaining the American Dream is losing some of its luster—while walkable communities are experiencing a comeback.
This subtle yet meaningful paradigm shift is taking shape in a context in which the unintended effects of our car dependency have become undeniable.
These include soaring rates of obesity and chronic disease; communities isolated from access to such essential needs as jobs, food, social engagement and opportunities for physical activity; an epidemic of traffic fatalities that, tragically, has come to be accepted as the cost of mobility; and increasing concern about our planet straining with the weight of far too much carbon emitted into the atmosphere.
While promoting walking and walkability can help to create better, healthier lives for everyone, it is important to recognize that the car-centric composition of our urban environment affects certain populations disproportionately.
Specifically, the consequences are especially pronounced for those too old or too young to drive and for minority and lower-income communities that are less likely to have access to cars.
A growing body of research suggests that poorer Americans and Americans of color are likely to face the toughest conditions for walking, even as they tend to be more reliant on their own two feet and other alternatives to the private automobile for transportation.
A 2014 Governing magazine analysis, for example, found that the nation’s poorest Census tracts experienced double the pedestrian fatality rates of higher income tracts. Relatedly, another analysis found that Latinos are 43% more likely to be killed by cars while walking (African Americans were 60% more likely to be killed in this manner).
In 2012, Kaiser Permanente found that those living in low-income areas were less likely to benefit from accommodations that make places more walkable: attributes like sidewalks, street lighting, and marked crosswalks.
We at America Walks encourage you to get involved in the conversation about what walking means to your community.
After all, creating communities in which walking is safe, convenient, and appealing is not just about making more lively and more liveable places.
It’s a matter of human dignity.