Active Commuting

Active Commuting

What does this indicator measure?

This indicator measures the percentage of people aged 16 and older who commute to work by walking, bicycling or taking public transportation. Places with a high percentage of people taking these modes to work tend to be more walkable and more accessible to destinations where jobs, schools, groceries and other necessities are available.

The connection to health

Everybody should have safe, accessible and convenient transportation options to get to work and other destinations. Active commuting by foot, bike and transit creates opportunities for physical activity, provides transportation options for those without a car, encourages social cohesion, and reduces contributions to climate change and air pollution. Having adequate and accessible transportation options has been linked to improved physical and mental health, physical activity, employment outcomes, medical care, and resiliency during disasters. For households and individuals without access to a car, including many low-income individuals and people of color, active transportation options and public transportation can be critical links to jobs and other health supportive destinations that provide essential goods and services. These transportation options can also be cheaper alternatives to driving and help people save on costs of owning and operating a car.

Walking, bicycling and using public transportation allows people to get regular exercise. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, and most people can reach that goal simply by walking or biking to work or other destinations, while also building physical activity into their daily lives. This can add up: nearly a third of public transportation users are physically active for 30 minutes or more each day just from walking to and from their pickup location.65 Studies have shown that people who use public transportation for any reason were less likely to be sedentary or obese, taking 30% more steps and walking 8.3 more minutes per day than people who mostly drove everywhere.66 Walking to and from public transportation can also save people money on healthcare costs. One study estimated lifetime savings of $5,550 per person in 2007 dollars.68

However, many California cities have developed infrastructure that favors individual car use and offers limited alternatives. These limitations can make it difficult for those who walk, bike and take public transportation to get around, especially in rural areas where destinations are further apart. Lack of adequate transportation options can negatively impact one’s health, particularly for those who without access to a car. Where transit service is scarce, when routes are cut back, and when sidewalks and bicycle facilities are lacking, people have less access to goods and services, employment, and other opportunities. Low-income individuals and people of color, who use active and public transportation options the most, are greatly impacted by lack of access.67 During extreme heat events and other climate-related events, having available transportation options can greatly impact the health outcomes of these communities. In some cases, transportation is required for survival and sufficient access to the transit system during these events is essential.

Where to start?

Improving transportation options for active commuters requires a range of strategies, including planning, investment and community engagement. There are differences in the strategies needed in urban and rural areas, but overall the goal is to provide access to opportunities that improve health outcomes and support healthy community conditions (i.e. access to quality jobs, good schools, grocery stores and farmers’ markets, clinical care, etc). Transportation strategies can also ensure resilience69 in climate-related events by providing access to cooling centers, emergency support services, and organized evacuations.

Local governments should Support Walking & Bicycling by investing in new infrastructure (sidewalks, bicycle facilities and amenities that make it safer and more convenient to walk and bike), supporting education and encouragement programs in schools and the community, and passing policies like Vision Zero and Complete Streets that set long-term goals for increasing walking and bicycling while also improving safety. They should also work with transit agencies to Improve Transit Service, both by expanding frequency and routes available, while also ensuring the existing system is maintained. Local governments should also explore different Free or Discounted Passes for Transit to lower the cost and incentivize greater use of these services. Since most people without a car rely on public transportation, communities should also improve first and last mile connections for those walking and bicycling to route stops. Special Consideration for Rural Areas is needed, and local governments should consider partnering with ride-sharing or car-sharing companies, encouraging carpooling, and identifying creative and innovative mobility options to get more people where they need to go.

Local governments should also think about Smart Growth and how building and preserving affordable housing near transit and other mobility networks can facilitate greater rates of walking, bicycling and transit use, while also providing greater access to safety, health supportive destinations, and opportunity. They should also design transportation facilities in ways that reduce the urban heat-island effect and keep people cool while waiting. In planning future investments, local governments should foster Community Power and Connection, which can empower local residents to inform transportation decisions and improve accessibility. Finally, local governments should Guarantee Transportation Lifelines during emergencies and climate related events for people who walk, bike and take public transportation, and otherwise do not have readily access to a car.

Improving transportation options for active commuters can come with a high immediate price tag, especially related to infrastructure investments. There are a number of funding sources and technical assistance programs that can support local government efforts to build more resilient infrastructure and ensure everyone has adequate transportation options. The Active Transportation Program is the primary state funding source for walking and bicycling infrastructure investments, and it includes a 10% set-aside for projects in rural and small urban areas. Many local governments and transit agencies have their own sources of walking and bicycling funding as well. For more information, see: The California Transit Association’s Transit Funding Overview, and the California Department of Transportation’s Low Carbon Transit Operations Program and Transit & Intercity Rail Capital Program. Like with active transportation, many local governments and transit agencies have their own funding programs, including local sales taxes dedicated to transit service. For more information on Smart Growth, see: The California Strategic Growth Council’s Affordable Housing Sustainable Communities and Transformative Climate Communities for examples of programs that fund housing and land use investments, and the State’s General Plan Guidelines for recommendations on how to plan for Smart Growth.