IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

What Happened to Foot Traffic in Large U.S. Cities?

Pedestrian activity declined in all of the top 100 metros in the United States between 2019 and 2022, driven in part by commuting and other mobility changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A pedestrian uses a crosswalk in an urban environment.
Americans are walking significantly less.

This is maybe the briefest takeaway from a recent report by StreetLight Data, a transportation data analytics company. StreetLight examined pedestrian trips in the 100 top U.S. metros to find that daily walking trips have declined 36 percent between 2019 and 2022.

It’s no accident, say researchers, that this trend coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended working and commuter patterns — then, and today.

“I will say that when I first saw this data, it’s a little bit shocking,” remarked Emily Adler, director of content at StreetLight, during a Nov. 9 webinar to discuss the data. “We talk about remote work all the time, and how that’s impacted downtowns, and the economic impacts. But I don’t think we talk as much about how it affects our overall, day-to-day lived experience of walking around.”

By not going into offices as frequently, said Adler, walking trips to and from transit are reduced, a walk to get lunch doesn’t happen. This is especially the case for remote workers who live in areas not designed for walkability. Vehicle trips during the period took a sharp decline in 2020 when Americans entered a wholesale shutdown mode, but have since bounced back and are only 4 percent below pre-COVID levels.

“So people may not be walking as much,” said Adler.

“But they are finding reasons to drive around,” she added, noting this can be the case for home-based remote workers who may not live in walkable locations and require a car for even short trips.

During the study period, every metro lost pedestrian trips — defined as walking trips at least 250 meters — ranging from 23 percent to 49 percent, according to the report. Nine out of the 10 metros posting the smallest decline in walking were in warm weather locations. Warm weather cities tended to see the smallest declines. For example, Sarasota, Fla., only experienced a 23 percent decline in walking activity. Akron, Ohio, posted the largest decline in walking, dropping nearly 50 percent.

New York and Los Angeles — the largest metros in the U.S. — each saw about a 30 percent decline in walking trips.

“In a number of specific metros, we are starting to see walking activity coming back,” said Adler, noting that in 2022 Los Angeles led the recovery with a 19 percent increase in walking. And nine of the top 10 increases in walking activity in 2022 were California cities.

“Even though this data largely looks to be moving not necessarily in the direction we might want to be, no single metro or state seems to be seeing a level of decline that’s totally irreversible. The numbers from 2022 suggest that a rebound is still possible,” said Adler.

Cities will increasingly look to the kinds of movement data produced by companies like StreetLight, as they establish policy around transportation and infrastructure. And perhaps just as important, the data needs to be recent and multimodal.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many officials want to know what this new normal looks like, recalled Sam Roxas, director of state and local public policy at Replica. The transportation analytics company uses de-identified movement data from mobile devices to glean information about travel patterns, and then creates a simulated model of travel.

“Everybody’s talking about ‘work from home,’” Roxas said, in an interview with Government Technology. “Everybody’s talking about ‘the death of downtown,’ but what is actually happening?”

Having the data collected and analyzed by a firm like Replica or using StreetLight Data’s analytics tools can save time, money and increase the accuracy of the data.

“It’s worth trying and using this data to make an informed decision about building new infrastructure,” said Roxas.

And indeed, getting more Americans walking will likely require new policies around infrastructure development, land use and other urban concerns, said Adler.

“It looks like it will take a significant investment across a variety of areas including safety, road design, transit access, land use, and I think this is especially true in more suburban regions where density and walkability is less common, where people are increasingly spending their weekday time,” she explained.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.