Pedestrians crossing street at dusk in Georgetown, Washington, DC
Feature Redefining Walkability
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Examining equity and creating safer streets for all in DC
Peace Gwam, Eleanor Noble, Yonah Freemark
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When the District of Columbia launched its Vision Zero initiative in 2015, a pedestrian or cyclist had been dying on the city’s streets every 21 days. Now, seven years into an initiative intended to eliminate traffic-related deaths by 2024, the District has gone backward: in 2021, a pedestrian or cyclist died in the nation’s capital every 18 days

For the pedestrians and cyclists who navigate American cities, safe streets not only entail usable sidewalks and bike lanes, they also entail everything that makes someone willing to walk or bike through a neighborhood, such as a comfortable environment and freedom from fear of arrest, among other goals.

In decades past, transportation planners and policymakers in cities across the country demolished Black neighborhoods to add highways and invested in public transit systems that provided unequal access to communities of color. As a result, walkability across the US is highly racialized, with communities of color living in less-walkable neighborhoods that have fewer street lights, higher speed limits, and more police stops per capita.

Based on new research, we seek to expand the definition of walkability beyond the quality of infrastructure to emphasize equity and to inform policymakers who are working to meet Vision Zero goals. We have developed several indexes to reflect many of the issues that affect walkability in neighborhoods across Washington, DC.

These indicators include measures that reflect access to resources, environmental quality, policing, infrastructure quality, and traffic safety. We also developed an index of neighborhood demographic information to pinpoint where investments can best address historical injustice in infrastructure planning and funding. When exploring the walkability scores below, you can use the priority neighborhoods checkbox to highlight communities that scored above the 68th percentile on the equity index.

Although no single measure of walkability can fully encompass the challenges pedestrians face, these maps can begin to show the different stories of these indexes and the scope of changes needed to ensure safe, convenient, and comfortable walking throughout the District.

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How Policymakers Can Holistically Improve a City’s Walkability

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser worked with the city council to introduce measures such as lowering speed limits, banning right turns on red, and limiting left turns at certain intersections to meet the city’s Vision Zero goal. Bowser has increased fines, but greater traffic enforcement cannot replace infrastructure investments in creating safer streets and more equitable experiences.

In response to an uptick in pedestrian deaths last year, Bowser recently pledged $10 million annually for road safety improvements. Although these solutions are a step in the right direction, our walkability categories demonstrate that safe streets and walkable neighborhoods go beyond traffic-calming measures and infrastructure improvements, and a more expansive approach is needed.

Other infrastructure and traffic-safety solutions that policymakers could implement include a citywide street audit to identify where sidewalks are in poor condition and where people with physical disabilities may struggle to get around. Transforming four-lane roads into two-lane roads with center lanes for turning, a process called a “road diet,” has also been shown to decrease crashes between 19 and 47 percent (PDF).

Our analysis shows that although downtown DC has higher-quality infrastructure and better access to transit, jobs, health care, and other resources, it also has high heat, noise and air pollution, and more dangerous walking conditions. Outside of downtown, neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have better environmental qualities but worse access to resources, more police encounters, and worse sidewalk infrastructure. Lastly, the wealthier neighborhoods in the northwestern part of the city have few encounters with police, little air or noise pollution, and some of the safest streets for walking.

To create a more comfortable walking experience, our research points to a few steps DC planners and policymakers can take to increase racially equitable walkability across the city:

  • expand tree cover in the densest parts of the city,
  • increase nonautomotive modes of transportation in central areas,
  • reduce noise pollution,
  • support more equitable access to key resources, and
  • prioritize road design that limits the need for police traffic enforcement.

At the same time, the city should expand community policing strategies that can help people confidently move around without fear of being stopped or arrested.

And finally, policymakers should work to ensure that walkability solutions foreground equity. Collecting data on race, ethnicity, and disability for people involved in crashes can help policymakers prioritize communities that have been disproportionally impacted by discriminatory land-use policies and historical injustice.

Walkability cannot be boiled down to one simple score. A pedestrian’s willingness to traverse a city by foot depends on available infrastructure, nearby destinations, street design safety, and their sense of comfort in an area. Improving walkability in one community will require different solutions than in another. For DC and other cities to meet their Vision Zero goals, policymakers must be willing to target solutions to each community’s needs.

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About the Data

Data for the equity index are from the American Community Survey. The access to resources index uses Open Data DC datasets. For the environmental measures index, we use data from the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service. The policing index uses DC Stop and Frisk Data. We developed the infrastructure quality index using calls to city services, the DDOT Street Spatial Database, and crowdsourced data from Project Sidewalk. We developed the traffic safety index using data from the DC Vision Zero Traffic Fatalities and Injury Crashes Dashboard and Open Data DC. See the technical appendix for additional information on our methodology.

Project Credits

This feature was funded by the Urban Institute’s Fleishman Innovation Fund. We are grateful to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of Urban experts. 

RESEARCH Peace Gwam, Eleanor Noble, and Yonah Freemark

DESIGN Christina Baird

DEVELOPMENT Ben Chartoff

EDITING Michael Marazzi

WRITING Wesley Jenkins

Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Land use
Tags Transportation
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center