Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Is Our Obsession with Work Trips Making it Harder to Walk?

Basking in the glory of Circulate San Diego's Captain VZ at a Bike to Work Day pit stop
You can tell by my smile in this picture that I love a good Bike to Work Day pit stop as much as the next cyclist. But guess what? I'm not biking to work in this picture; I'm biking to the grocery store.

This underlines something about travel behavior and policy that has bothered me for a while: we focus on work trips, despite the fact that most of our travel isn't for work. The latest California Household Travel Survey data shows that about 10 percent of California's travel is work-related, similar to the latest national data showing that commute trips are about 15 percent of travel.

There's a pretty obvious explanation for our work-trip bias: it's what the Census counts. Since 1960, the Census has asked every working American how they get to and from their job. Often it's the only data that's regularly (if you call every 10 years "regularly") gathered about walking and biking within a city. Because of this, Census data often becomes the proxy for "how many people walk or bike in our city."

To see the problems with this, let's go back to 1959 and take a look at why we started counting commute trips in the first place. Here's an excerpt from a congressional subcommittee hearing on plans for the 1960 Census:

As you can see, a key reason for counting work trips was to help solve "problems of highway planning." Put another way, the government was hoping to figure out how best to get workers (mostly men) who owned cars (mostly men and families with higher incomes) and lived far enough from central cities to drive on highways (mostly white people) to work.

Shockingly, focusing on the travel patterns of rich, white men led to investments in transportation infrastructure that mainly benefited wealthier, whiter, suburban households, usually at the expense of poorer, less-white, urban communities.

While we're (very) slowly beginning to consider issues of equity in our transportation system, the emphasis on work travel continues to color the way to talk about, and plan for, transportation. Here's a beautiful graphic from a report by ARUP, Cities Alive: Towards a Walking Word:

You can see it shows that just four percent of Los Angeles trips are taken on foot. What it doesn't show is that's four percent of work trips. Based on California-specific data on overall trips, the percentage is likely much higher--probably closer to 15 or 20 percent.

It may seem like a minor point to belabor, but putting out information like this supports the misconception that people in LA don't walk, downplays the importance of walking as a critical travel mode, and makes it easier to brush aside the needs of pedestrians when we plan for transportation infrastructure.

As another example, San Diego's much-lauded Climate Action Plan includes one recommended action related to walking,  which is to "implement pedestrian improvements in Transit Priority Areas to increase commuter walking opportunities."

I'm thrilled to see any recommendation in the CAP to invest in walking, but I have to wonder at the focus on commuter walking. Most trips, and particularly most walking trips, aren't to work. Would we see a bigger increase in pedestrian travel if we prioritized improvements for shopping/personal errands, for example, which make up a larger portion of weekly travel and are already more likely to be completed on foot? How would we spend our transportation dollars differently if we prioritized non-work trips?

Asking these questions isn't just an esoteric geek-out for planners who have nothing more exciting to do on a Saturday night. How we prioritize our transportation spending has real impacts on safety, equity, and economic stability for our cities. We continue to invest in transportation projects that improve travel to work for wealthy, white communities (hi there, Mid-Coast Trolley Extension!). If we want to change that, we need to take the time to gather the data and write the policies that give equal weight to the travel of everyone in our cities, not just commuters. 

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