Factors Associated with Bicycle and Pedestrian Investments

Neighborhoods and transportation systems that promote regular physical activity—through public transit, sidewalks, bike paths, trails, greenways and traffic-calming devices—are associated with more walking and bicycling, greater physical activity and lower rates of obesity. As Congress considers reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, advocates, planners, researchers and policy-makers have an opportunity to discuss the impact of transportation projects on health and explore changes to the law that could better support healthy communities.

New state-specific reports released by the Harvard Prevention Research Center describe how state and local governments spent the more than $3 billion in federal transportation funds awarded for bicycle and pedestrian projects between 1992 and 2004. According to the reports, 62 percent of all U.S. counties implemented at least one such project during that period, such as improving sidewalks or creating a bike lane or multi-use trail. Counties with lower levels of education, higher poverty rates or higher proportions of households with multiple vehicles were significantly less likely to have implemented such projects.

The state reports also include recommendations for improving health outcomes. Policy-makers should:

    Recognize the role of transportation policy in promoting public health.

Project selection and scoring criteria can reward applications that encourage walking and bicycling for transportation.

    Improve data tracking and monitoring systems for bicycle and pedestrian improvements. 

Standardized reporting criteria should be created for bicycle and pedestrian projects. Public access to such data will help promote transparency in assessing how federal transportation dollars support these projects.

    Target transportation funding to underserved communities.

Streamlining application processes, reducing matching fund requirements and other targeted strategies may help lower-income or underserved areas implement more bicycle and pedestrian projects.

More information about the link between transportation programs and health outcomes is available in a 2009 brief by Active Living Research. Data show transportation investments that support physical activity are associated with lower rates of obesity and decreased individual health care costs. The research brief also provides guidance on specific transportation investments that help people be more active and promote public health.

The state reports and the research brief were funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its national program Active Living Research.

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