Foot commuting takes a step forward in safe, walkable cities

Fri, 2014-06-06 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

Is walking a realistic emission-free option for getting significant numbers of workers to their city jobs? It appears so -- if pedestrians feel safe. 

A recent Sustainable Cities Collective article looked at the recent Bicycling and Walking in the United States: 2014 Benchmarking Report which, among other things, compared 52 large U.S. cities on the number of folks who commuted to work on foot and the number of traffic-related deaths. It found that 15% of Bostonians walk to work. That’s five times over the paltry 3% national average.  The report also found that 10% or more of the residents of Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco and Honolulu walk to work.

The article notes that these pedestrian-popular cities have some things in common. All have relatively compact downtowns with nearby housing, well-connected streets, good pedestrian infrastructure and, most importantly, low rates of pedestrian deaths.  For instance, Boston has both the highest rate of walk commuting among the 52 cities and the lowest rate of fatalities per walking commuter.

Which comes first? Pedestrian safety or more walking?

The real question the article hopes to answer is summed up in the title: “Pedestrian Safety Leads to More Walking, or is it Vice Versa?” Based on the benchmarking report findings, the author extrapolates that if we do more to create safe walking environments, people may walk more and become healthier. Also that if people walk more, walking in turn becomes safer.

The notion that city walkers enjoy better health is supported by the recent report from the American College of Sport Medicine. It’s Health and Community Fitness Status of the 50 Largest Metropolitan Areas ranks Washington D.C. as the most fit city and puts San Francisco and Boston in the top 10. New York came in at number 24 and Honolulu was not included in the study.

And while more walkers may lead to establishing a safer walking environment, many cities are taking direct steps to make that happen. For example, the City of Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada has an aging population of which a large number are visually impaired. To make it safer for these individuals to cross city intersections, city officials partnered with Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Center, an SCC Advisor, through its Community Geomatics Centre (CGC). The CGC’s geospatial research has led to installing audible crosswalk technology at intersections determined to have higher risks for elderly walkers.

To read more about making cities walkable, take a look at the Washington State Department of Transportation Walkable Communities site and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration Pedestrian Safety Guide.