Leveling the Playing Field for Underserved Communities

kelechiSome neighborhoods are more equipped to support active lifestyles than others. Yet, in many of these less equipped neighborhoods, we find higher instances of students who walk or bicycle to school (Giles-Corti et al, 2011; McDonald, 2008). While neighborhoods with sidewalks, crosswalks and the like make it easier and more appealing for their residents to be physically active, pedestrians in these less equipped neighborhoods tend to do so out of necessity rather than leisure. Consequently, they are at greater risk of traffic injuries, a leading cause of childhood mortality globally (Pollack et al, 2012).

Safety and security concerns have become so apparent that Safe Routes to School scholars and advocates have turned their attention to the income disparities in built environments. For example, a 2012 research brief by Bridging the Gap informs us that people living in low-income communities are less likely to have such pedestrian-friendly features as sidewalks, street and sidewalk lighting, marked crosswalks and traffic calming measures. In a 2011 publication by Active Living Research, the authors synthesized a number of studies that found that racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income people live in communities that do not provide as many built and social environmental supports for physical activity. Rather, they experience more crime and traffic dangers than their more affluent counterparts. Furthermore, in another 2012 research brief by Bridging the Gap, findings indicate that land use laws requiring pedestrian-friendly improvements, active recreation areas, open space, trails and bike lanes are less common in lower- and middle-income communities than those in higher-income communities.

State and local governments can try to address this glaring reality in a number of ways. For instance, Safe Routes to School programs should track the income level of schools and communities that apply for and receive Safe Routes to School funding to assess whether low-income schools are being adequately served (Pedroso, 2010). In so doing, they could also determine which approaches produce the best impact in these underserved communities. As another example, cities should prioritize lower-income communities and largely minority communities when creating new neighborhood parks, open spaces and other such destinations for recreational physical activity. Cities and states could also adopt best practices for street designs, zoning and community plans that create safer pedestrian environments in these low-income communities.

More information on this topic can be found on the following webpages:

  1. Research Publications and Reports
  2. The Influence of the Built Environment on Travel Behaviors
  3. Lower-Income Communities
  4. Personal Safety