NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sprawl Decreases Daily Walking

April 23, 2003

Why don't Americans walk anywhere? Many experts on public health say the way neighborhoods are built is to blame for Americans' physical inactivity -- and the resulting epidemic of obesity.

The health concern is a new slant on the issue of suburban sprawl, which metro regions have been struggling with for a decade. Over the past 50 years, cities, towns and suburbs have been developed on the assumption that every trip will be made by car. That has all but eliminated walking from daily life for people in most parts of the country.

  • Americans make fewer than 6 percent of their daily trips on foot, according to studies by the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Three-quarters of short trips, a mile or less, are made by car, federal studies show.
  • Children don't get much more of a workout -- fewer than 13 percent of students walk to school.

Among the reasons why you can't walk there from here:

  • Bigger houses on bigger lots mean neighborhoods stretch beyond walking distance for doing errands.
  • Residential neighborhoods are far from jobs and shopping centers, and even schools.
  • Roads are built big and busy, intersections and crosswalks are rare and shopping centers and office parks are set in the middle of big parking lots, all of which have become dangerous places to walk.
  • In many cul-de-sac suburbs and along shopping strips, sidewalks don't exist.

And for good or ill, a suburban house in a bedroom community is to many people the American dream. "A large part of what some people call sprawl is what other people call affordable housing, jobs and highways that go somewhere and get you there," says Daniel Fox, president of the Millbank Memorial Fund, a health policy research foundation based in New York.

Source: Martha T. Moore, "The way cities and suburbs are developed could be bad for your health," USA Today, April 23, 3003.


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