Part of why it is so important to consider walkability in any town or city is the fact that people must walk at least some distance to reach their final destinations, even if it means traversing a parking lot. Looking at walkability from this perspective, it makes sense that walkable streets and neighborhoods are more economically productive than car-centric ones. For towns and cities hoping to boost their vitality, these economic indicators are important numbers to consider.
Communities can compound this benefit to improve the communities for a large number of residents, particularly those who can’t drive anymore. Walkability can make a car-free or car-lite decision easier for older adults, and allow residents on fixed incomes to reduce their car usage and be able to use the money to participate more actively in the local economy.
Creating more walkable communities can also be relatively cheap to achieve. Instead of building infrastructure to separate pedestrians and cars, simply prioritizing people on foot vastly improves the safety, and therefore the viability, of walking. One example of a low-cost approach is implementing Leading Pedestrian Intervals at intersections, which gives people crossing the street a head start over traffic. This makes them more visible and asserts their right to cross safely, and the Transportation Research Board suggests this fix alone could reduce pedestrian-vehicle collisions by 60 percent.
A more widespread and less visible effect of car-centricity is how pollution affects public health. Especially in geographic areas that tend to concentrate pollution, communities need to find ways to reduce pollution – largely through vehicle miles traveled (VMT) – which can improve residents’ overall health and economic productivity.
Local governments have begun to experiment with ways they can cut back on VMT and improve mobility options. Some of these can be small nudges, such as in Los Angeles, California, where the transit agency plans to roll out a smartphone payment system this coming fall. This would serve to make taking transit seem like a more viable decision on a general level, but could also directly address pollution by providing incentives to use transit on smoggy days. It’s subtle cues like these that can help a mobility network thrive.
Salt Lake City, Utah, made public transit free during a “red flag day,” when air quality is dangerous for anybody outside. As expected, there was a spike in ridership, which officials have extrapolated to mean fewer people drove, though that has not been directly measured. Though the Utah Transit Authority says it cannot afford to continue these fare-free days, the experiment does go to show that the more accessible transit services appear to travelers, the more likely they are to use them.
While there is plenty of focus on transportation for workers, local governments should also focus on the negative effects that lengthening commutes to school have on students. A recent study has shown that students who end up traveling at least 30 minutes to class tend to participate less in physical extracurricular activities and get less sleep, which of course affects overall health. Though this may be a tougher issue to resolve due to consolidating school districts, it would serve students well if education, transportation, and health officials work to address this activity deficit.
Overall, these experiments point to ways to improve mobility overall, and therefore health, and show how these things are interconnected.