Photo by RTC/Barbara Richey

Understanding current levels of active transportation and user habits provides crucial information to improve service for the future.

Nationwide, walking composes 11 percent of all trips, bicycling 1 percent. On average, Americans bike 24 miles and walk 113 miles per year, according to the National Household Travel Survey. These figures are low because of likely underreporting and because the survey does not capture walking or biking to access another mode (e.g., walking to the bus stop).

Data collection on walking and cycling has long focused on trips to work, but it is important to note that a majority of trips in general, and in particular for walking and cycling, are for other purposes—including to social and recreational activities.

Because of the perceived and real risks of bicycling alongside traffic, women are less willing to bike without separated infrastructure to do so. Therefore, gender split is an important indicator for the quality of the cycling environment, and in the U.S., a shocking three-quarters of all bicycle trips are made by men. In the Netherlands, considered by many as the gold standard in terms of bicycle infrastructure, women make more bicycle trips than men (55 percent).

Although total active-transportation levels in the U.S. are still low relative to other countries and to historic U.S. levels, there’s good news. National Household Travel Survey data indicate an almost 10 percent increase in active transportation per capita between 2001 and 2009. With increasing numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists, now is the time to invest in active transportation.

Accommodating Active Transportation for the Future

Figure 1. Distribution of trips taken in the U.S. by car (red), foot (green) and bike (blue) sorted by trip distances (horizontal axis). There are more than 60 billion car trips of one mile or less (first red bar), and another 40 billion of one to two miles (second bar), taken every year. (Source: National Household Travel Survey 2009) | View Full Image →

Half of all car trips in the U.S. are within a 20-minute bike ride, and a quarter of car trips are within a 20-minute walk. More than 60 billion car trips of one mile or less are taken every year—trips that could just as easily be taken by walking or bicycling, given the proper infrastructure.

Investments in infrastructure that improve conditions—sidewalks, bike lanes, better crosswalk signage—help make active transportation feasible, safe and convenient. Consequently, it tends to increase the number of people who choose to walk or bike.

The Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, authorized by Congress in 2005 and supported by RTC, was created to demonstrate whether focused investments in bicycling and walking networks can get more people out of their car to use walking and biking as their mode of travel. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Significant investments of more than $25 million each were made in four pilot program communities (Columbia, Mo.; Marin County Calif.,; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Sheboygan County, Wis.) to build sidewalks and bike lanes and educate residents about the benefits of active transportation. As a result, all four communities experienced an increase in walking and biking; on average, walking mode share increased by 15.8 percent from 2007 to 2013, and biking mode share increased 44 percent, with some communities experiencing up to 22 percent and 85 percent increases.

Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers

Commentators and decision-makers have long assumed that biking and walking are merely a “big city” phenomenon. The belief is that low-density communities such as small cities, towns and rural areas cannot sustain more than a few walkers and bike riders. However, data from the U.S. Department of Transportation indicates otherwise. Rural Americans walk at a rate between 58 and 80 percent of the overall national rate, depending on the type of community they live in. For biking, the numbers are even higher: between 74 and 104 percent. In big cities and small towns alike, Americans are ready to see more active transportation.

Download our report, Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers, to learn more about walking and biking in rural America.