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October 8, 2015 9:18 PMCategory: Physical Activity

What Can Your Street Do for You?

This entry is re-posted from the APA Sustaining Places Blog. To read more from APA, click here.

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By Lindsay Maurer Braun
Doctoral Student
Department of City and Regional Planning
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Making the case for active transportation projects isn’t always easy in a world built for four wheels. Against the backdrop of a century of automobile-oriented development, today’s increasing efforts to plan for walking and cycling — to design streets for all modes and users — are an important step (or pedal) forward.

However, many of our funding sources and political processes are still set up to favor the automobile, and the U.S. car culture remains strong. In this context, pedestrian and bicycle projects often face extra scrutiny in decisions about how to spend limited resources.

Planners have become increasingly adept at navigating this scrutiny and pushing active transportation projects through the pipeline. These projects are often justified on the basis of health: by making it safer and more convenient to travel on foot or by bicycle, active transportation investments can encourage physical activity and the multitude of health benefits that come along with it. This is a critical focus, but it is also important to recognize that walking and cycling interventions can have benefits that extend well beyond physical activity. Highlighting such “co-benefits” can provide further justification and appeal to a wide audience concerned with community livability and economic vitality.

So what are these co-benefits, and what does the evidence base say about them? How can they be used to make the case for walking and cycling interventions?

APA’s Planning and Community Health Center, in collaboration with Active Living Research, recently released a report that tackles these very questions. The report reviews more than 150 studies — including academic journal articles, books, agency reports, and case studies — that examine the co-benefits of walking and cycling investments. The focus is on interventions that take place at the street level, from sidewalks and bicycle lanes to street trees and public spaces.

The report adds weight to something that planners already know, either intuitively or from experience: that everything is connected, and that a single intervention can have a host of community impacts.

For example, street-scale features can promote social cohesion by encouraging social interaction and creating a strong sense of place. Careful street design can improve public safety — including both actual crime and our perceptions of it — by putting “eyes on the street” throughout the day. Traffic calming measures and crossing aids can enhance traffic safety for users of all travel modes, and areas with more green space tend to have better mental health. In an argument that may resonate with a broad, resource-conscious audience, active transportation interventions can also enhance economic vitality by encouraging spending at local businesses, creating jobs during project design and construction (more jobs per $1 million spent than for road projects!), and attracting a workforce that increasingly values walkable urban form.

These co-benefits don’t occur automatically. They require careful planning, attention to local context, and individual projects that are purposefully integrated with the larger transportation network. Social equity is also a key consideration: decisions about where to invest can either promote or detract from transportation options and access to community resources.

But the underlying message of the report is clear: although physical activity is an essential part of the case for walking and cycling interventions, it is not the only part. Planners have many co-benefits to call upon when building support and talking to stakeholders with diverse interests, from mental health to economic development.

Equipped with this information, we will be better prepared to answer the growing call for healthy, sustainable, and livable communities.

Image: Exercising with a furry friend can be more fun. Photo by Flickr user Peiyu Liu(CC BY-NC 2.0).