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Active Transportation Transforms America Report

By: Rails-to-Trails-Conservancy REPORT
October 15, 2019

Active Transportation Transforms AmericaDownload

More than half of all trips in the United States are within a 20-minute bike ride or less, and more than one in four trips are within a 20-minute walk or less, according to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey. Even so, the majority of these short trips are taken by automobile. Across rural, suburban and urban America, there are opportunities to shift short trips from driving to walking and biking by creating safe active-transportation networks. In the process, this mode shift can create remarkable economic returns and improve the quality of lives; in fact, the findings of this report reveal that the potential annual return on investment of connected active-transportation infrastructure could be as high as $73 billion+ in a modest scenario and $138 billion+ in a substantial scenario. Mode shift leads to fewer cars and light trucks on clogged roads, as well as less air and climate pollution, while also creating a transportation environment that favors physical activity.

Accelerating Mode Shift

Increased walking and biking, for both utilitarian travel and recreation, are among the most effective ways to address America’s crisis of physical inactivity. This crisis is a major factor in high and rising rates of chronic diseases that cost the U.S. health-care system trillions of dollars each year, with many of those costs falling to taxpayers.

Business leaders looking for ways to attract employees and grow their enterprises, and local leaders aiming to increase tax revenue, support trail and active transportation networks—infrastructure proven to attract talented workers and tourists. Leaders in rural mining and industrial towns that have lost employers and population are reinventing themselves as trail towns or recreational hot spots.

In short, the United States is facing a plethora of pressing issues that affect its citizens’ quality of life—and wallets. The good news is that relatively small investments in walking and bicycling can help address these problems. Active transportation—that is, walking, biking, rolling or other means of mobility powered by human energy—can be a powerful part, albeit just one part, of the solution to address fossil fuel consumption, reduce health-care costs via physical activity, and contribute to the economic well-being of local communities and individuals. However, to encourage more walking and biking, safe and protected facilities that seamlessly connect to each other must be built.

Just as roads take a car from one’s driveway to a local street, then to an arterial street, and eventually onto the highway, which connects to more arterial and local streets, the opportunity exists to build a connected network of active transportation facilities that will allow anybody to make that 20-minute trip by walking or biking.

In a connected network, anyone from the ages of 8 to 80 years old is able to navigate his or her community using safe walking and biking infrastructure. For example, the person would have direct access to a sidewalk at the start of the trip and when approaching an intersection. That intersection has a highly visible, well-painted crosswalk, which this person can use to cross the street and turn onto the main four-lane road.

As this person walks along the street, cyclists nearby are using a protected bike lane to travel safely, separated from fast-moving traffic. Five minutes later, the bike lane and sidewalk intersect with a multiuse trail, which this person takes for another 10 minutes, removed from the stress of car traffic. Near the destination, the trail is met with more sidewalks and protected bike lanes, creating a safe biking and walking experience from end to end. While trips like these should be the norm, many Americans live in communities without sidewalks. Still more live in communities without any protected bike lanes or safe active-transportation infrastructure. Shifting short car trips to walking and biking trips is achievable. Many of the trips Americans take are only 3 miles (a 20-minute bike ride) or less.

Shifting these short car trips to nonmotorized ones, however, will take policy, behavior and perception change, which can only occur if connected networks of safe and protected walking and bicycling facilities are built all across the nation. That means sidewalks, rapid-flashing beacons at crosswalks, protected bike lanes, protected intersections, multiuse trails and more.

This report shows that these facilities provide an incredible return on investment in the form of benefits that:

  1. Enable more users to connect to their destinations by walking or biking
  2. Improve people’s health and reduce the cost of health care
  3. Reduce greenhouse gases and oil dependence
  4. Encourage economic investment in our communities

All communities, no matter their size, may compete for federal investment in active transportation infrastructure, although the dollars available are vastly insufficient compared to the need. Smaller towns and rural areas, where rates of walking and biking are comparable to those of urban areas, are particularly dependent on federal resources to make necessary connections and safety improvements. With a growing number of Americans who cannot or choose not to drive for some or all of their trips—including seniors, children and people with disabilities—today’s transportation options must include safe routes to walk and roll.

The Age of Connectivity

American communities today are at a crossroads. For the past 70 years, the automobile has been the dominant mode of transportation and has received the lion’s share of federal and state transportation investment. Engineers have prioritized maximum car throughput and free-flowing speed or level of service as markers of transportation efficiency and success.

Now, communities across America are looking for ways to strike a better balance so that residents might have more transportation choices and a higher quality of life. Multimodal transportation systems that prioritize human-centered mobility are in high demand.

In addition to fixing potholes and repairing rusted bridges, more and more Americans are asking their elected officials—from Congress to the statehouse to the town hall—to invest in walkable neighborhoods, safe and complete streets, and easy access to transit. Unlike America’s Interstate Highway System, a comprehensive active-transportation system has yet to be built out. While more communities have individual trails, and some walking and biking infrastructure, many are now seeking to enhance connectivity by further completing trail and active transportation networks.

Communities are prioritizing how to maximize the number of people, not just cars, moving through a corridor. They are placing safety and reduction in traffic fatalities and injuries at the center of their transportation priorities. This shift in concern might mean reducing car speeds, providing separated paths for walking and rolling, or both.

Investing in walking and biking is a good deal for the American economy. Benefits of active transportation are enjoyed throughout society. This report quantifies those benefits to the public and to the government.

Individuals can benefit from improved health and cost savings, in addition to improved air quality and overall better quality of life. The private sector benefits from increased business opportunities, tourism and an overall vibrant urban environment that improves worker productivity. The government benefits from efficient transportation and land use, reduced health-care costs, and a more inclusive and equitable society overall. But investing in active transportation is about much more than any of these benefits. It’s about investing in people and the places in which they live—and giving all Americans the mobility options they need to thrive.


Active transportation is transforming America. Its benefits are far-reaching and bring powerful outcomes to every type of community, including connecting people to jobs and other opportunities, creating opportunities for people to be physically active and outdoors, and revitalizing economies and communities.

A modest public investment in completing trail and active transportation networks within and between communities will deliver myriad benefits to individuals and society and an annual economic return to the tune of $73.8 billion. These benefits include access to safe and seamless walking and biking routes; improved health and social connectivity; new opportunities for economic growth; and access to jobs, education and culture. In the substantial scenario, economic benefits nearly double to more than $138.5 billion annually.

We have a unique opportunity to realize these benefits while addressing pressing issues related to public health and chronic disease, climate change, and economic development through the lens of transportation justice and social equity. As shown in this report, over half of all trips taken in the United States are suitable for a short bike ride, and more than one in four are suitable for a short walk, making walking and biking both realistic and feasible transportation options. Americans are demanding safe places to walk and bike on a broad scale. Reprioritizing local, state and federal policies in response to that demand will deliver an outsized return on investment by changing how Americans get around and facilitating vital communities and healthy people.

Designing communities with low-stress, routine active transportation in mind can help address the national problem of sedentary lifestyles leading to chronic disease. With safe networks of walking and biking in place everywhere across the country, communities can substantially curb carbon emissions while benefiting from better air quality. Investing in active transportation facilities will also produce a positive fiscal return on investment by generating more jobs, consumer spending and tourism, while attracting and retaining a skilled workforce with community design that prioritizes the walkable, bikeable features that are hallmarks of good places to live.

The range of benefits from active transportation may seem too good to be true, but the evidence is there—as this report demonstrates. Active transportation is a cost-effective strategy for delivering multimodal options that serve a changing transportation landscape. All decision-makers need to do now is prioritize active transportation funding and focus that investment on strategically connecting trails, sidewalks and bike paths into a nationwide active-transportation network.

As America continues full steam ahead into the 21st century, its aging, last-century transportation system needs to catch up. The last reform-minded federal transportation bill, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, was passed in 1991. Nearly 30 years later, Congress, as well as state and local governments, now must put forth a vision of a balanced transportation system that meets the rapidly changing needs of today and tomorrow.

That vision must include robust investment in connected active-transportation networks within regions and longer trails as spines connecting communities and states.

In the 19th century, the government substantially invested federal dollars in the national railroad system, culminating famously in the golden spike being ceremoniously driven into the railroad ties to join the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869. In the 20th century, the government substantially invested federal dollars into the Interstate Highway System, connecting East and West, North and South, along intertwining, fast-moving highways meant exclusively for the automobile. In the 21st century, Congress must now invest federal dollars in a national active-transportation system so every American might realize the transformative benefits this infrastructure can bring. States and localities also have critical roles to play—and many excellent models to follow—in planning, designing and investing in the active transportation networks of the future.

Some Americans are fortunate to live in communities where trail, walking and biking networks are emerging. Connectivity efforts are changing their communities—urban, suburban and rural—for the better. Now is the time to elevate these case studies and the powerful outcomes they can deliver. Public investment in active transportation systems at the federal, state and local levels will allow these benefits to be shared by all communities, not just a select few. With the same strength of vision that built the railroads and the Interstate, America can provide the benefits of safe, connected active-transportation networks and spines everywhere, for everyone.

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Everyone deserves access to safe ways to walk, bike, and be active outdoors.