Walking: The Secret Ingredient for Health, Wealth, and More Exciting Neighborhoods

It's been called "America's untrendiest trend." The evidence that millions of people are finally walking again is as solid as the ground beneath our feet.
Walking in city photo from Shutterstock

Photo from Shutterstock.

Walking is going places.

Over recent decades, walking has come to be widely viewed as a slow, tiresome, old-fashioned way to get around. But that’s changing now as Americans recognize that traveling by foot can be a health breakthrough, an economic catalyst, and the route to happiness.

Is walking the next big thing? Look to the media to give you an answer. Popular lifestyle magazine Real Simple declared it “America’s Untrendiest Trend” on its February cover. A month later Builder, a construction trade journal, announced something similar on its cover: “Walkability. Why We Care … and Why You Should Too.” A new book called A Philosophy of Walking, reviewed in The New Yorker, asserts that walking “makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing.”

And one of the year’s top music videos, “Happy” by soul singer Pharrell Williams, shows all kinds of people strutting, stepping, striding, and sashaying down city streets. It’s an exuberant celebration of walking and has been viewed more than 500 million times on YouTube.

There is sure to be continuing coverage of foot power next year when the Surgeon General’s office releases a Call to Action on the health and social benefits of walking and walkable communities—a step some are comparing to the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of smoking.

Already the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all adults engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as walking, five days a week. It has been proven to lower incidences of major medical problems—not just heart disease, diabetes and obesity, as you might expect, but also depression, dementia, and other serious conditions.

This flurry of attention about walking is more than a flash in the pan. Evidence that millions of Americans are now rediscovering walking to fulfill their transportation, fitness, and recreation needs is as solid as the ground beneath our feet.

Americans Are Getting Back on their Feet

 “Walking is the most common form of physical activity across incomes and ages and education levels,” explained Thomas Schmid of the federal CDC at a conference in Pittsburgh last fall. The CDC’s most recent research shows that the number of Americans who walk for leisure or fitness at least once a week rose to 62 percent in 2010 from 56 percent in 2005—that’s almost 20 million more people on their feet.

Walking is already more prevalent across the United States than most of us realize. Paul Herberling of the U.S. Department of Transportation noted that 10.4 percent of all trips Americans make are on foot—and 28 percent of trips under a mile. For young people, it’s 17 percent of all trips. Americans walk most frequently for exercise, errands, and recreation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last year the first ever Walking Summit was held in Washington, D.C., drawing more than 400 people from 41 states and Canada. A second summit is scheduled for October 28–30, 2015, in D.C.

The 2013 summit, which sold out weeks in advance, marked the birth of a new walking movement committed to: encouraging everyone to walk more; and boosting policies, practices, and investments that make communities everywhere more walkable. It was convened by the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, a joint effort involving more than 100 influential organizations across many fields to promote walking as part of the solution to problems ranging from chronic disease and health care costs, to climate change and the decline of community.

Walking also strengthens our social connections, which have been shown to be as important to health as physical activity, says Kaiser Permanente Vice-President Tyler. The more we are out walking, the more people in our community we come to know.

Americans overwhelmingly view walking as a good thing, according to a national survey . Here’s what it found:

-Good for my health (94 percent)

-Good way to lose weight (91 percent)

-Great way to relax (89 percent)

-Helps reduce anxiety (87 percent)

-Reduces feelings of depression (85 percent)

Americans Are Voting With Their Feet

Even the American dream is being remodeled to meet the public’s growing enthusiasm for walking. Sixty percent of Americans would prefer to live in neighborhoods with stores and services within easy walking distance, according to a recent survey from the National Association of Realtors—nearly twice as many who want to live where stores can be reached only by car.

This is especially true for the millennial generation, which is now entering the workforce and housing market in large numbers and will shape the future of American life as dramatically as the baby boomers did in the 1960s and 1970s. “With drastically different views of transportation from those of generations that came before them, millennials are transforming communities,” notes another report from the National Association of Realtors. “Millennials own fewer cars and drive less than their predecessors. They’d rather walk, bike, car-share, and use public transportation—and want to live where that’s all easy.”

Why Walking? Why Now?

 What’s driving the growing passion for walking? “It’s a convergence of factors,” says Christopher Leinberger, a real estate developer, George Washington University business professor, and a leading advocate for walkable communities. Those factors are:

1. The well-established link between walking and better health , which is reinforced by recent research pointing to the dangers of sitting for long periods of time. A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition that charts 240,000 Americans between ages 50 and 71 found that “overall [time] sitting was associated with all-cause mortality”.

2. The accelerating costs of owning one, two, or more cars, which many Americans, especially younger people, find a poor investment of their resources. Transportation is now the highest cost in family budgets (19 percent) next to housing (32 percent). In auto-dependent communities—where walking is inconvenient and unsafe—transportation costs (25 percent) approach housing costs (32 percent).

3. Metropolitan areas with many walkable neighborhoods do better economically than those with just a few. Leinberger’s recent report “ Foot Traffic Ahead“ finds that walkable metropolitan areas “have substantially higher GDPs per capita” and a higher percentage of college graduates. Office space in walkable locations enjoys a 74 percent rent-per-square-foot premium over offices in auto-oriented developments in America’s 30 largest metropolitan regions.

4. More people discovering the personal satisfactions of walking. “Seeing friends on the street, walking to work, strolling out for dinner or nightlife” are among the pleasures of walking that enrich our lives, says Leinberger.

Walking Means Business

 Firms in the booming tech, information, and creative industries are at the forefront of the trend toward walkable communities because the coveted young talent they need to stay competitive want to work in places that are a short stroll from cafes and cultural attractions.

The first thing Google did after buying the electronics firm Motorola Mobility was to move its headquarters away from the freeways and strip malls of Libertyville, Illinois, to the walkable environs of downtown Chicago. “They felt like they couldn’t attract the young software engineers they needed” to an isolated 84-acre complex, says Leinberger. Other companies that recently moved from suburban Chicago to the city include Medline, Walgreen’s, Gogo, GE Transportation, Hillshire Brands, and Motorola Solutions.

“Two things seem to resonate for businesses about the importance of walkability—how to attract the best workforce and wanting to locate in communities where health costs are lower,” says Mark Fenton, a former U.S. National Team race walker who now consults on public health planning and transportation. Employees with more opportunities to walk at work and at home are healthier, meaning lower insurance rates for their firms.

From his vantage point at the CDC, Thomas Schmid observes, “If a business is located in a community that is not healthy, they’re paying more to be there. Think of it as a tax or cost of doing business because of health care costs.” One company relocating to Chattanooga, he said, would do so only if a walking and bike trail was extended to their facility.

The Challenges to a More Walkable America

The walking movement has picked up a lot of momentum in a very short time. “The wind is behind our sails,” says Kate Kraft, a public health expert working with EBWC and America Walks. But she goes on to note that “it took 80 years to make America unwalkable, and it will take a lot of work to make it walkable again.”

Last year’s national survey on attitudes about walking accentuates these challenges. By a huge majority, people say that walking is good for them but admit that they should walk more (79 percent) and that their children should walk more (73 percent). Only 11 percent say they meet the CDC’s recommended daily minimum for walking—half an hour a day, five days a week.

Common reasons cited for not walking are:

-My neighborhood is not very walkable (40 percent)

-Few places within walking distance of my home (40 percent)

-Don’t have time (39 percent)

-Speeding traffic or lack of sidewalks (25 percent)

-Crime in my neighborhood (13 percent)

Solutions for a More Walkable America

Here are some of the promising developments, strategies, messages, and tools that are now emerging to promote walking:

Vision Zero for Safe Streets : As many as 4,500 Americans are killed crossing the street every year—a tragedy that very few people acknowledge. But there’s hope that will change now that New York City, San Francisco, and other places are implementing Vision Zero campaigns to reduce traffic deaths through street improvements, law enforcement, and public education. Similar policies in Sweden cut pedestrian deaths in half over the past five years—and reduced overall traffic fatalities at the same rate. “Vision Zero is the next big thinking for walking,” says Alliance for Biking & Walking President Jeff Miller.

Federal Action Plan on Pedestrian Safety: New U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx recently announced an all-out effort to apply the department’s resources to boost bike and pedestrian safety the same as they do auto and airline safety. Secretary Foxx—former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina—notes that pedestrian deaths rose 6 percent since 2009. “Bicycling and walking is as important as any other form of transportation,” he says.

Safe Routes to Schools : Half of kids under 14 walked or biked to school in 1969. Now it’s less than 15 percent. Safe Routes to School campaigns work with families, schools, and community officials to identify and eliminate barriers that block kids from getting to school under their own power. “We’re finding that the best interventions include both infrastructure improvements and programming. You put the sidewalks in but also get parents involved,” explains Margo Pedroso, deputy director of the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.

Walking as a Basic Human Right : Walking has been shown to optimize our health and strengthen our communities, which means everyone should have equal opportunity to do it. But low-income people often find it difficult or dangerous to take a walk in their neighborhoods, which often lack sidewalks and other basic infrastructure. Studies show that pedestrians in poor neighborhoods are up to four times more likely to be injured in traffic accidents. This theme is now being addressed by many transportation activists and professionals.

Communities for People of All Ages : The mark of a great community is whether you’d feel calm about letting your 80-year-old grandmother or 8-year-old son walk to a nearby park or business district, says Gil Penalosa, former park director of Bogota, explaining why he founded 8-80 Cities. Too many young and old people today live under virtual house arrest, unable to get anywhere on their own because driving is the only way to go.

Complete Streets: The simple idea that all streets should offer safe, convenient, and comfortable travel for everyone—those on foot, on bike, on transit, in wheelchairs, young, old or disabled. Twenty-seven states and 625 local communities across the U.S. have adopted Complete Streets policies in some form.

The Healing Properties of Nature and the Outdoors: Not all exercise offers the same health benefits, according to a growing body of research showing that outdoor physical activity, especially in nature, boosts our health, improves our concentration, and may speed up our natural healing process. A walk in the park is not only more interesting than a workout at the gym, but it may also be healthier too. The Wingspread Declaration—recently signed by 30 of America’s leading health officials, researchers, and non-profit leaders—calls for business, government, and the health care sector to step up efforts to reconnect people with nature.

Walking as a Medical Vital Sign : There’s an initiative afoot among public health advocates to encourage health care professionals to chart their patients’ physical activity the same as they do weight, blood pressure, smoking, and family health. Ascension Health (with 1900 facilities in 23 states) Kaiser Permanente (648 facilities in 9 states), Group Health (25 clinics in Washington state), and Greenville Health System (7 facilities in South Carolina) are among the health providers already doing it.

Walk With a Doc: Walking has the lowest drop-out rate of any physical activity, which is why Ohio cardiologist David Sabgir started Walk With a Doc: to sponsor events in parks and other public places where people can talk to health care professionals while taking a casual walk. Walk With a Doc now operates in 38 states.

Signs of the Times: Many people are so out of practice with walking that they don’t realize how convenient it is. That’s why architecture student Matt Tamasulo posted signs in Raleigh, North Carolina, explaining that key destinations were only a few minutes away by foot. The city soon embraced his guerrilla campaign, and official walkway-finding signs can now be found around town. Tamasulo has launched Walk [Your City] to help other communities show how easy it is to get around on your own power.

Walking is Fun: “Walking is still not seen to be as sexy as biking,” says Robert Ping, program manager for Walking and Livable Communities Institute. “We could focus more on walking as recreation—the stroll through the neighborhood after dinner, going around the block, walking down to the park, meeting your neighbors. Something that’s not only utilitarian and good for the environment, but that’s fun!”