Walking plays a fundamental role in our transportation system, with 11 percent of all trips made on foot, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Neighborhoods that rank high for walkability (where walking is safe and convenient) enjoy a greater sense of community and higher property values, note recent studies.
Another benefit of walking is better health. Studies document that moderate physical activity like a daily stroll can cut rates of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and colon cancer by at least 40 percent, and save more than $100 billion a year in health care costs according to the American Public Health Association.
So why don't Americans walk more? We take about half as many steps each day as Australians.
It's not that we're lazy. In the decades after World War II an historic transformation of America's population occurred as millions of Americans moved from walkable cities and small towns to suburbs. By the year 2000 the average American adult was driving about 14,000 miles per year and spending more than 212 hours per year commuting in a car -- the equivalent of five work weeks. At the same time we redesigned our communities based on the notion that walking was an outmoded activity. Walking for both transportation and recreation went into decline.
The result is that today traveling on foot can often feel unsafe or unpleasant. Walking is a basic human instinct, but climbing into vehicles has become second nature to most Americans of all ages for going to work, getting to school, seeing friends, shopping, even exercise.
This automobile-dominated way of life has triggered some ominous consequences. Obesity and related diseases escalate. Social connection and community vitality decline. Greenhouse gases disrupt our climate. Families are forced to devote a high percentage of their income to own two or more cars, while those who can't afford one miss out on economic and social opportunities. Many children, seniors and differently-abled people live under a form of house arrest.
Fortunately Americans are now rediscovering walking and our communities are becoming more walkable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Americans walked six percent more in 2010 than in 2005. The Millennial Generation (people born between 1980 and 2000), in particular, show a strong desire to live in communities where they can get around easily on foot.
The public health and urban planning professions are now joining forces to promote health by creating more walkable communities, just as they did in the late 19th century to improve urban sanitation. Meanwhile grassroots efforts are growing in cities, suburbs and small towns to make communities safer and more comfortable for all of us to walk. Numerous health and community organizations from across the U.S. are gathering in Washington D.C., this week for the national Walking Summit to launch a full-fledged walking movement.
America is getting back on its feet.