Want to fight climate change? Try making it easier to walk.

Sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure are an overlooked way to reduce emissions in cities.

People walking and biking on a sidewalk.

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Walking in a waterlogged ditch, on overgrown vegetation or dirty slush or in the street, surrounded by speeding cars. Hearing the sound of traffic, breathing in toxic exhaust and hearing the honks of impatient drivers. All this while trying to avoid being hit by cars that are much larger and faster than you, driven by people who may or may not see you or even be paying attention. If you’ve ever needed to walk or take public transportation to the grocery store, a doctor’s appointment or a friend or family member’s house on a road or street that lacks a sidewalk, you have likely had a similar experience. After this experience, you may have decided to avoid these problems by walking less. It’s an unpleasant experience, one that can be filled with near-misses and close calls with vehicles. It’s enough to make anyone want to give up, turn around and go home. 

Walking or biking down a road without a sidewalk doesn’t just feel unsafe: it empirically is unsafe.  The presence of sidewalks or walkways can reduce pedestrian collisions by up to 89%. Or, to put it differently, roads are up to 89% more dangerous for pedestrians when sidewalks are not built. Unfortunately this dangerous lack of infrastructure is altogether too common in the United States, where city  audits often find thousands of miles of gaps and missing sidewalks.

Aside from the fact that this effectively bars many people (such as the disabled, the elderly and children) from accessing basic necessities, it’s also a huge problem for the climate. 

Whether it’s heat waves, droughts, flooding, hurricanes or unusually warm winters,  nearly everywhere in America is experiencing the effects of climate change in one way or another.. We need to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to stop these patterns from getting worse in the U.S. and worldwide. The transportation sector is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – contributing 27% of our total. Half of that is a result of private car usage. While electric vehicles are necessary for decarbonizing our transportation system, especially in rural areas, walking, biking and public transportation is still the most impactful way to reduce transportation emissions. 

As the least-carbon intensive form of transportation, it makes sense to design our communities to encourage walking and to make it the easiest way to get around. Rather than a luxury, we should require  complete, accessible sidewalks on both sides of every street. We should prioritize the safety of pedestrians over speed and accessibility for cars. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Our transportation system continues to have two sets of standards: one for clean transportation and one for cars.

One way to view this is to simply look around and compare the range of destinations reachable by vehicles with those that can be reached safely on foot. Except in the most rural of areas, it’s generally unheard of for a road intended for cars to randomly end blocks before the actual destination, or to have large gaps in it for no reason, but these issues are common for pedestrian infrastructure. In many areas, a large portion of retail and commercial locations are located on “stroads”, streets with stores and homes that are designed like roads without any high-quality sidewalks. 

Another example of this double standard can be seen by how we fund our infrastructure. Even as cities have missing and inaccessible sidewalks that would take billions of dollars to fix, the majority of funding goes to repairing car infrastructure- and to expensive highway expansions that will make the problem worse and increase the amount people drive. Even brand new projects often eschew necessary pedestrian and bike infrastructure in favor of more lanes for cars, exacerbating the problem further. Less funding is given to sidewalks that lower emissions while more funding is given to brand new roads that will increase our emissions. 

Another common problem is that the burden to build, maintain and plow snow off sidewalks often falls on the individual property owners. This leads to a patchwork of sidewalk networks with some sections well-maintained and plowed while others remain covered in snow, poorly maintained or absent. Put together, this increases the risk to people who try to access their city without a car. 

Not only is there a gap between the actual on-the-ground infrastructure and the funding to fix it, but there’s also a gap in the data we need to help people navigate the sidewalks we do have. If you’re trying to get from place to place in an unfamiliar city, you might use a GPS service like Google or Apple Maps, or, if you’re old-school, a paper map, perhaps from a nearby gas station. These might serve you well if you’re driving to your destination, but if you’re going on foot or with a mobility device, you won’t find any information on if it’s actually possible to make it there safely via sidewalks or pedestrian paths.

While these services don’t represent every avenue available to gather information on sidewalks and pedestrian routes, data on the location and quality of sidewalks can be sparse even when other transportation data is plentiful. Many municipalities and states offer GIS, or Geographic Information System, data to the public. This data can include all sorts of cartographic information, from street maps to farmers markets to highway exits. This information can be used by advocates, elected officials and decision makers when it comes to making crucial urban planning decisions, as well as citizens looking for information about their cities. 

What governments choose to measure is a reflection of their priorities, which makes the gap in data collection on pedestrian infrastructure even more concerning. While 90% of cities offered this data for streets in general, only 34% offered it for sidewalks and even fewer for other forms of pedestrian and accessibility infrastructure such as crosswalks and curb ramps. The lack of available information on sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure isn’t just frustrating for people trying to reach destinations on foot- it also means that there’s no way for cities to address the gaps in their sidewalks, as there’s no way for them to comprehensively assess the problem. 

These inequalities- in the built environment, in funding and in data- aren’t a result of malice or some conspiracy among transportation planners. Generally speaking, they’re a result of transportation planning as a discipline planning around cars first and everything else last- a relic of when automobility was considered the future of transportation- and from before we understood the reality of climate change. While many municipalities and departments of transportation publicly may claim a desire to prioritize pedestrian safety and accessibility, in most cases, a better measurement of their priorities is their list of proposed projects.

To meet our climate goals, we must address the status quo that has led us into this situation. Although over 600 cities across the country have set climate goals, transportation, an area that cities can control, often lacks concrete action. Despite claims from city leaders that they are prioritizing the climate crisis, the progress is overall mixed. Some cities are indeed making their communities easier to get around without a car, by making sure every bus stop has a place to sit and by expanding bike and pedestrian paths, but many others continue to prioritize road widenings and carbon intensive projects. We need to make sure that action to stop climate change is taking center stage by addressing this transportation disparity.

What would it look like if city and state transportation plans took the climate crisis into account? While we need to provide funding for sidewalks, buses and bike lanes, we also need to take a holistic approach to reimagining our entire transportation system. 

Public transit and active transportation gains can easily be erased when they are paired with harmful infrastructure that makes it easier to drive. When a brand new sidewalk is placed along a widened, more dangerous road, we’re taking one step forward and two steps back. Walking, biking, and transit need to be prioritized, and treated as legitimate forms of transportation. This means stepping up efforts to collect data on sidewalks the way we do for roads, investing in complete walking networks before engaging in expensive new road projects and making sidewalk construction and maintenance a municipal responsibility rather than an individual one.

 

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Authors

Mackenzie Brown

Global Warming Solutions, Associate, Environment America

Mackenzie works on the Transform Transportation campaign, where she works to build a more climate and human-friendly transportation system. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, walking, biking and reading. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Matt Casale

Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.

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