Americans Walk and Bike More, but Just a Little

Study Shows Modest Increase in Walking and Cycling in the U.S.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 06, 2011

May 6, 2011 -- Despite repeated calls over the years by public health officials for people to increase exercise and physical activity, Americans are walking and cycling only a little more now than they were a decade ago, a new study shows.

The average American made 17 more "walk trips" in 2009 than in 2001, covering just 9 more miles per year, the study says.

But that compares with only two more bike trips -- and a total of five more annual miles of cycling, according to the research team from Rutgers University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Sydney.

Infrastructure Improvements

They researchers say improvements in infrastructure, such as creation of sidewalks and bike paths, are needed, and that these changes should be made along with establishing educational programs that stress the importance of a more active lifestyle.

The researchers compared findings from the National Household Travel Surveys for 2001 and 2009. Among the key findings:

  • The prevalence of any walking remained unchanged, but walking at least 30 minutes a day increased from 7.2% in 2001 to 8% in 2009.
  • The prevalence of any cycling remained unchanged at 1.7%, and the prevalence of 30-minute cycling remained at 0.9%.
  • Active travel declined for women, children, and seniors, but increased among men, the middle aged, people who were employed, well-educated people, and those without cars.

Role of Public Transportation

The researchers say social inequities in active travel may explain differences in physical activity patterns.

They also say the analysis confirms the important role of public transport in encouraging active travel. That’s because 90% of all public transport trips involving a walk at both ends. Therefore, policymakers should consider the importance of pedestrian access to public transport stops.

Cycling also has the potential to be an important access mode to public transport, the researchers write. “In designing the right mix of policies, it is important to target women, children and seniors, who are the most vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists, and require special attention to protect them from the dangers of motor vehicle travel.”

The researchers say improved infrastructure both for walking and cycling is needed, and better avenues should encourage necessary behavior toward a more active lifestyle, which is important for reducing obesity and promoting cardiovascular health.

The researchers point out that walking and cycling “contribute to daily physical activity, aerobic fitness and cardiovascular health, while helping to protect against obesity, diabetes and various other diseases.”

Cycling With a Purpose

Other findings include:

  • About 75% of walk trips and 50% of bike trips in 2009 were for utilitarian purposes, such as getting to work, school, shopping, visiting friends, or accessing public transportation.
  • Trips for recreation, exercise, and sports accounted for 27% of walking trips and 49% of biking trips.
  • Utilitarian cycling rose from 43% to 51%, which the researchers describe as the most striking change in trip purpose.

Despite a “cycling boom” reported in big cities in the past few years, overall cycling growth has not increased significantly, the study shows.

“American cities have a long way to go to catch up to walking and cycling levels in Europe, which are about three to five times higher than in the United States,” the researchers write.

Improvement would be made more likely if sidewalks, crosswalks, bike paths, lanes, and intersection crossings were improved, and if traffic laws were enforced more vigorously.

The study is published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

Show Sources


News release, American Public Health Association.

Pucher, J. American Journal of Public Health, May 2011.

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