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Why Walking and Bicycling?

Walking is a basic form of mobility and virtually all trips—regardless of mode—start and end with walking.  Walking is free, doesn't require any special equipment except for shoes and socks, and doesn’t create harmful emissions.  But land use and transportation patterns over the past few decades have made many of us dependent on automobiles for daily travel. As a result, many people pay little attention to the importance of walking in their lives and do not identify themselves as pedestrians. As for bicycling, as the car has predominated, bicycling is something few people consider for transportation. Most people who bicycle do it as a recreational activity, such as renting bicycles for a leisurely ride while on vacation. 

Even so, walking and bicycling are gaining popularity nationwide as an alternative to the automobile for short trips.  In some communities, where there are tighter links between home and destinations, including school, work, and shops, walking, along with cycling and public transit, can be a preferred and efficient way to move from place to place.

Promoting walking and bicycling can help ease congestion, address the national obesity crisis, support environmental sustainability, and enhance the livability of communities.


Traffic congestion increases as reliance on the automobile for transportation grows.

The road network that has been developed in the U.S. over the past century, especially in the last 50 years,  is a remarkable system, providing residents and commerce with unprecedented mobility—locally, regionally, across the state, and across the country. 

As the road network developed, both the number of automobiles and the number of miles driven has increased dramatically.  Total vehicle miles traveled is about 3 trillion miles per year.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, the number of miles driven by Americans between 1980 and 1999 grew by 76 percent. At the same time, Americans have grown to depend on the automobile, and land use planning and development practices have changed to accommodate this dependence. The rate of automobile use is constantly increasing. Only 10 years ago, typical households averaged about 6 trips per day. Now the household average is 10 trips per day, up almost 70 percent.

Unfortunately, new roadway construction cannot keep pace with ever increasing travel demand. 

Consequently, in metropolitan areas such as the Baltimore region, over 32 percent of daily travel occurs in congested conditions — and even though new roads are added and roads are constantly being widened, congestion continues to climb. Annual delay per person has reached an average of 36 hours per year, costing each driver over $900 in lost wages and wasted fuel.

And despite calls to build more roads, it’s not possible to eliminate congestion.  Experience has shown that vehicle travel tends to expand in ways that absorb the available capacity, so new roads and widened roads end up stimulating more travel, using up the new capacity, and making the road network just as congested as it was before.  

More commuting by bicycle would help reduce traffic congestion.

Nationally, fewer than 6 percent of daily trips are made by walking or bicycling, even though about 40 percent of all the trips are relatively short trips, two miles or less.  Studies show that more people would walk or bicycle if safe and convenient facilities were available. And even small shifts of the number of trips away from the automobile to walking, bicycling and transit, can lead to considerable reductions in traffic congestion. 

The high cost of gasoline provides another incentive to consider shifting some trips to walking and bicycling.  With the annual average cost of owning and operating a car estimated at more than $7,000, by comparison, walking and bicycling are truly affordable transportation options.

A complete network of facilities for  walking and bicycling can provide residents and their families with ways to reach workplaces, schools, medical facilities, shopping areas, parks, and transit facilities without having to be automobile-dependent.  Improved facilities for walking and bicycling would also help to provide additional mobility choices for the 30 percent of the population that cannot or do not drive because they are too young, too old, or unable to afford a car.


The National Centers for Disease Control (CDC) links many health problems, including diabetes and obesity, to poor diet and lack of exercise. Obesity has become epidemic in American society, and Maryland ranks as one of the more problematic states. Health surveys in Maryland show that more than half of the residents of the state are either overweight or obese.  Diet- and exercise-related health problems also contribute to the rising cost of health care for all Americans.

Walking can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

While walking and bicycling for daily transportation can be an important source of physical activity, they have declined dramatically over the past few decades.  Health officials are encouraging a healthy diet, combined with regular physical activity, to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other ailments. Walking and bicycling are inexpensive and practical activities that people can most easily and routinely incorporate into their daily lives. Reversing the decline in rates of walking and biking for transportation, especially for short trips, presents a major opportunity for improving health among children, adolescents, and adults.

The environment also benefits when more people use non-polluting forms of transportation.  When cars and trucks deposit oil, antifreeze, grease and metals onto streets and driveways, runoff of these pollutants ends up in local waterways and eventually drains into the Chesapeake Bay.  Reducing car use helps reduce this source of pollution and the associated costs of cleanup.

Air pollution is a serious problem in the Baltimore region, especially ozone pollution, which results from motor vehicle emissions. It is estimated that air pollution is responsible for over 600,000 deaths annually nationwide. Less driving also means improvements in air quality, which helps to reduce respiratory diseases and chronic conditions such as asthma.  A short, four-mile round trip by bicycle keeps about 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air.


The definition of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of current and future generations to meet their own needs.”

In practical terms, sustainability focuses on how to make human social, economic, and organizational systems last longer and have more positive impact on the natural and physical environment.  Locally, sustainability is concerned with the use of land and transportation systems and the impact on the environment including the Chesapeake Bay.  Globally, sustainability addresses major issues concerning the use of and access to oil, climate destabilization and greenhouse gas emissions, and broader environmental impacts. 

Transportation consumes about 30 percent of the total energy consumed in the U.S. in an average year, and about 2/3 of this amount is used by motor vehicles.  In suburban communities like Baltimore County, transportation comprises as much as 50 percent of a household’s total energy consumption. 

As a form of transportation, bicycling provides many environmental benefits.

In denser communities, where more people walk, bicycle, and/or use public transit, households consume much less energy on average, and only about 20 percent of a household’s total energy consumption is on transportation. 

Sustainable transportation practice aims to reduce the total number of automobile trips, thereby reducing energy demand and other impacts on the environment.  This goal serves a variety of objectives including:

  • saving money and increasing household disposable income;
  • cleaner air;
  • healthier people;
  • healthier communities;
  • more open space;
  • reduced traffic congestion. 

The "green transportation hierarchy" (produced by the community organization Transportation Alternatives of New York City) illustrates transportation mode options in terms of the overall environmental impact.  The modes of transport that contribute least to global warming are at the top, and those that contribute most are at the bottom.

Suburban-style neighborhoods can pose a challenge to creating a more supportive culture for walking and bicycling as these neighborhoods have been planned and built around automobile-centric transportation.  As a result, roads are generally wide, speed limits allow for fast moving traffic, and land use is usually segregated so that areas of housing are segregated from commercial areas, including buildings housing businesses as well as retail complexes and other developments. Often, development patterns have created large districts with few pedestrian and bicycling connections between them, often forcing walkers and bicyclists to go out of their way to get to their destinations. And, long distances between home, work, and other destinations further discourage people from walking and bicycling. 

Because walking and bicycling are the most sustainable modes of transportation that exist, improving the physical environment to support walking and bicycling can be a strong contribution to the realization of sustainability. 

Livable Communities

Walking and bicycling improve the livability of communities.

Walking and bicycling are important components of vibrant public spaces, dynamic neighborhoods, and active and pleasant streets.  Walking and bicycling help to promote interaction between neighbors, strengthen connection to the community, provide ‘eyes-on-the-street’ security, and support local retail activity.  By comparison, streets and places where people are not present often feel uncomfortable and sterile.  Promoting livability through walking and bicycling has an added benefit--increases in home values.  Recent research has found that homes located in more walkable neighborhoods—those with a mix of common daily shopping and social destinations within a short distance—command a price premium and/or have maintained more of their value when the real estate market declines, compared to similar homes in less walkable areas.

So helping to make neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable not only builds stronger communities, it is also an economically sound investment.

Revised July 23, 2018         
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