An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

How State Policies Can Make it Easier to be Active


February 22nd, 2019


Being physically active throughout the day can help children and adults meet recommended amounts of physical activity, and reap the health benefits activity provides. Every other year, the Safe Routes to School National Partnership produces a 50-state scan examining how state policies support or hinder walking and biking in communities and the school setting. This report shows how state governments can play a key role in creating active communities, or can unintentionally limit opportunities to be physically active, especially in lower-income communities.

The Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP) was kind enough to allow the State of Obesity to feature their state data for two factors. The first examines how a state supports shared use efforts, policies that make it easier for community members to use school facilities like playgrounds and gyms for recreation. The second focuses on complete streets policies, which incorporate safe and convenient biking and walking options into transportation planning.

To better understand these data, we spoke with Michelle Lieberman, Senior Technical Assistance Manager at SRTSNP.


State policies might seem pretty disconnected from whether or not a person is active on a given day. Can you help us better understand the connection between the laws a state may have on the books and how active a kid or family is able to be?

States have a key role in promoting physical activity. Studies show that kids and adults with access to safe and convenient places for physical activity, such as parks, playgrounds, sidewalks, and bike paths, are more likely to be physically active. State policies can have a big effect on whether or not these opportunities are present in your community.

For example, state Complete Streets policies can require that communities build streets with sidewalks and bike lanes, which makes walking and biking in your neighborhood safe. State Safe Routes to School policies can provide funding for sidewalks and crosswalks around schools, and for bicycle and pedestrian safety education for students. State shared use policies can require schools to open their doors to families for recreation in the evenings and on weekends, which provides crucial access to safe places for physical activity, especially in low-income neighborhoods without parks, green space or other community facilities.

States can establish goals to inspire change and set up councils and task forces to identify needs and develop plans. States can make funding available for health-promoting initiatives such as Safe Routes to School. State policies can authorize cities and towns to enact local laws to further support physical activity, or can even require localities or private parties to avoid actions that are detrimental to community health.


Let’s look in particular at the two policies we feature on the site, complete streets and shared use. Why are these important? Why do you include them in your analysis?

Street design plays an important role in either supporting or hindering active transportation and physical activity. People feel safer walking and biking on streets with sidewalks, bike lanes and bike paths, crosswalks, slow traffic speeds, and lighting. Research shows that people are more likely to walk on streets with high-quality sidewalks, and more likely to bike on streets with bike lanes or bike paths.

State Complete Streets policies require the department of transportation to consider the needs of people who walk and bike when they design, build, and operate streets. These policies can have wide-ranging benefits, improving safety and promoting active lifestyles, encouraging economic growth and sustainability, and reducing environmental burdens. In this report, we evaluated states based on whether the state has adopted a Complete Streets policy; we also graded states based on the strength of the policy itself. For example, state policies that include language like “shall” or “must” and that specify implementation steps are stronger than policies that refer to general Complete Streets principles without defining the specific outcomes or processes to be followed.

The report finds that overall, 34 states have some form of Complete Streets policy in place, with two new states adopting policies since 2017. New to the 2018 report cards is our analysis of the specific type of Complete Streets policy: whether the state has adopted legislation or a transportation department policy, or both, and the strength of the language within the policy for including mandatory requirements for active transportation infrastructure.

Shared use agreements allow a school to open up its playgrounds and fields for public use outside of school hours. Since schools are often centrally located in a community, this provides community members with a convenient and free place to play and get physical activity. Research shows that the number of children who are physically active outside is 84 percent higher when school playgrounds and fields are kept open for public use outside of school hours, so these types of agreements have the potential to greatly increase physical activity in a community.

Our report graded states on whether they have adopted a state policy supporting shared use of school facilities and whether the state provides funding or incentives in support of shared use. The results of the 2018 Report Cards were encouraging: 46 states either encourage or require schools to allow access outside of school hours; additionally, the number of states providing funding or incentives for shared use increase from two in 2016 to 13 in 2018.


How can advocates or policymakers use these data?

The first thing advocates and policymakers can do is review their state’s score and understand why it received the scores it did. What areas is your state doing well in, and where is there need for improvement? We also recommend consulting our 2016 State Report Cards to look at the indicators where your state’s score changed.

Next, we suggest focusing on one or two specific areas where you’d like to see change. Once you’ve identified your goals, connect with partners who may be working on the same or similar issues. Think about connecting with public health partners, school associations, local YMCA chapters, community coalitions, faith-based organizations, and other partners.

Changing policies is a multi-step process that requires identifying decision-makers, crafting a proposal, and creating pressure and momentum for change. Our fact sheet, How to Use Your State Report Card, sets out key talking points and action steps that can help you build support for walking, biking, and active communities among decision makers and policymakers.


What would you want parents or other community members to know about this analysis, either the two data we feature here or others you include?

The report cards also contain important findings about how states are or aren’t prioritizing equity in high-needs communities. Only about one percent of federal transportation funding goes to active transportation infrastructure—that includes Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets, shared use, and other programs that support biking and walking. Because these dollars are so scarce, it is crucial that they be used effectively. Since higher-income communities have traditionally received more investments and have better infrastructure, states can make the biggest impact by investing in walking, biking, physical activity in low-income and high-need communities.

State departments of transportation have a lot of control over how federal funds are used to make communities safer for walking. This is particularly important when it comes to a state’s commitment to ensuring that high-need and low-income communities are receiving funds in an equitable fashion. Our report grades states on how they prioritize equity in active transportation funding by awarding extra points in funding competitions to disadvantaged or high-need communities, and/or by supplying required matching funds to those communities.

The Big Picture

Overall, states made progress in their support for walking and biking from 2016 to 2018, but they still need a significant push to make deeper commitments. Most states are still scoring in the middle categories (Warming Up and Making Strides), with a similar distribution to the 2016 report cards. Additionally, we see the same regional trends as in 2016, with the Western and Mid-Atlantic states showing the highest overall scores, and the Midwest, South, and Mountain West showing the lowest scores.