Health-conscious Americans face a predicament. They want to get more exercise into their daily routine—such as by walking or biking to work—but they may be reluctant because of the potential safety hazards.
Their hesitance isn’t without cause, as roadway fatalities have risen in recent years. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,461 people were killed on the road in 2016. Among these were 5,987 pedestrians and 840 bicyclists—the highest totals since 1990 and 1991, respectively.
To address this issue, health experts and city officials have teamed up to make the nation’s roads more conducive to active lifestyles, or more specifically, active transportation.
But what is active transportation? How is it helping to make people healthier and the roads safer? Amy Fitch, a lecturer at the University of Nevada, Reno, who specializes in social and behavioral health in the School of Community Health Sciences, recently sat down to discuss this topic and what cities are doing to improve the public’s well-being.
What is active transportation?
According to the American Public Health Association, active transportation is the means by which people get to their intended destinations through human energy, whether by walking, biking, running or wheelchair use. Sedentary lifestyles are more common than ever, evidenced by the high rate of obesity both for adults and children. Active transportation enables people to fit exercise into their hectic schedules.
But as Fitch points out, active transportation isn’t always feasible, especially in parts of the country where traffic congestion is heavy and financial resources may be limited.
“One of the most common reasons people don’t walk or bike is concerns about traffic safety,” Fitch explained. “One of the most common things you hear is people fearing they’ll be hit by a car.”
The Governors Highway Safety Association indicates that in 2016, pedestrian fatalities rose 11 percent compared to the previous year. Part of the reason for the double-digit increase was distracted driving, like talking on the phone and texting.
“It’s the only factor that that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave,” Richard Retting, safety director for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants, told the Associated Press.
State lawmakers have responded by prohibiting motorists from using their handheld devices behind the wheel, as 47 states ban drivers from texting and 15 states have hands-free laws in place. But they’re also implementing transportation infrastructure modifications, or what Fitch refers to as “road diets.” Also described as “road rechannelization,” road diets typically involve decreasing the number of travel lanes so users have their own areas of operation.
“[Road diets] are pretty popular now, but they used to be somewhat controversial,” Fitch said. “It involves the re-striping of roads so you have bike lanes on either side and a center turn lane in the middle instead of just having two vehicle lanes in each direction. The idea is to make a space for bicyclists—which makes them safer—and you also help make it safer for pedestrians since they are only crossing two [lanes] instead of four primary traffic lanes.”
Montana launched first road diet in 1979
Road diets are not a recent phenomenon. The first known one traces back to 1979 in Billings, Montana, according to the Federal Highway Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation. However, they’ve become increasingly popular since then. Charlotte, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Palo Alto and Seattle are among those metropolitan areas that have implemented various permutations of road rechannelization.
Many have proven to be effective in terms of reducing car crashes. According to the FHA, crash rates for cities with road diets have fallen between 19 percent to 47 percent, helped by motorists driving slower and increased user access for everyone, not just drivers.
What’s made road diets a contentious issue, according to Fitch, stems from motorists who view them as inconveniences.
“People get worried when they start seeing lanes get taken away,” Fitch said. “Drivers worry it will slow them down.”
Planners and transportation officials are mostly in favor of road diets because the numbers suggest they’re paying dividends, Fitch added. In fact, in Reno, crash rates have fallen as much as 50 percent — in sections where road diets have been implemented — thanks to smart planning implemented by the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), an organization Fitch served in for six years on the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
“The committee looked at the proposal for changes to roadway engineering and gave input on these types of projects,” Fitch said.
What specific types of infrastructure are most conducive to active transportation?
A road diet, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. This is why planners and transportation officials aim for the gold standard of active transportation — appropriately called the “complete street.”
“The idea is a street is designed for all users, not just for cars,” Fitch explained. “Roads should be safe, comfortable and convenient for everyone.”
What makes streets complete? Fitch says there isn’t a specific formula, but they generally have five key elements:
- Bicycles lanes or other bike facilities (i.e. cycle tracks).
- Center island refuge (allowing pedestrians to be at a standstill when waiting to cross).
- Traffic calming features (i.e. narrowing of lanes or implementing practices to slow down vehicle traffic).
While narrow lanes may seem counterintuitive to safety, Fitch noted how motorists intuitively tend to drive at slower speeds when lanes aren’t as spacious. In addition to making the roads safer, complete streets help to ease congestion, particularly in parts of the U.S. that are highly populated, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. According to the Complete Streets Coalition, more than 1,140 agencies at all levels of government have adopted complete street policies.
This includes New York City, far and away the country’s most populated metro at more than 8.5 million people, according to the most recent statistics from the Census Bureau.
“You can’t help but think of traffic and congestion in a place like New York City, but [planners] have put in a lot of bicycle infrastructure, allowing more people to travel by bike,” Fitch said.
The same is true for the state as a whole. According to the League of American Bicyclists and its Alliance for Biking & Walking Benchmarking Project, New York has spent more than $138.7 million on the development and upkeep of trails for pedestrians and cyclists. More than 16,000 miles of natural surface trails are available to walkers, runners and cyclists in New York. By comparison, California—the U.S.’ most populous state—has roughly 5,000 miles of natural surface trails.
Fitch noted that Portland has invested a lot of money and effort to promoting active transportation as well. Through its Regional Active Transportation Plan, city officials aim to increase the miles of sidewalks, bikeways and trails in the city by 50 percent within the next 25 years. Currently, about 27 percent of trips in Portland are by bike, walking or public transit, suggesting residents are taking advantage of what’s been built so far.
What can public health professionals do to advance active transportation?
While states and cities are making their roads more conducive to active transportation, the effort is an ongoing one. Much like achieving wellness, it’s a constant endeavor. Fitch recommends Master of Public Health graduates interested in active transportation look into opportunities that include city design and planning.
“As individuals, people can seek out opportunities to serve on advisory committees, attend public meetings to learn about proposed construction projects in their neighborhoods, and provide input during public comment periods,” Fitch advised. “As public health professionals, people can apply their research, policy development or analysis, communication, evaluation, and other skills by collaborating with city planners, traffic engineers and policymakers. Working on active transportation and built environment efforts draws from various public health fields, including physical activity promotion, injury prevention, and air quality improvement.”
To be truly conducive to public health, active transportation isn’t something that can be pursued in a half-hearted fashion. It has to be fully embraced so individuals can more easily leave their sedentary lifestyles behind. Public health officials working with city planners can help make this possible.
“If you go in and fix one road, you won’t have much of an impact,” Fitch stressed. “It has to be part of a larger vision of health promoting environments.”
Fitch, Amy. Email Interview (2017, September).