When researchers Ralph Buehler and John Pucher looked at the latest release of national data showing how people are traveling around, they were stunned. The numbers ― official government data ― showed that over nearly two decades, there had been no increase in the amount of time people are walking and cycling.
The number of daily trips made by walking or biking ― whether running errands or getting to work or school ― hadn’t changed from 2001 to 2017.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Pucher, professor emeritus in urban planning and policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”
But upon closer inspection, the two researchers realized why. And what they discovered was even more unsettling: Despite an increase in cycling among adults, there had been a dramatic decline in the amount of time children spend walking and biking each day.
From 2001 to 2017, there was a 34% decrease in the number of trips made by walking each day among children ages 5 to 15, and a 55% drop in their daily cycling trips, according to the researchers’ calculations.
“That’s a very disturbing trend,” said Buehler, associate professor in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.
Their research, published in January, reflects a trend that stretches back decades ― to 1973 ― of children cycling less as a way to get around. In addition, recreational cycling for children ages 7 to 17 has dropped 48% since 1997, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
One major reason for this, the study argues, is that our streets are simply not set up for bicycling or walking. More investment is needed to create safer cycling and walking infrastructure so that children are able to better navigate the streets by foot or by bike. The inequitable and insufficient urban planning that caters to cars over vulnerable populations comes with a big cost: our children’s health.