Walking and Neighborhoods: What Works?

Health and transportation experts continue to tout the benefits of walking for exercise and for neighborhood errands. One recent review by Neville Owen (University of Queensland, Australia) and associates examines eighteen separate studies on walking to determine common factors in the environment that might help or hinder walking, while Sheila Sarkar (California Institute of Traffic Safety) lays out guidelines to help quantify what makes a street or walkway comfortable for pedestrians—laying the groundwork for an assessment tool.

Understanding Walking Motivations
To understand how the environment might foster pedestrian activity, it is important to understand why people walk. Owen and associates found that factors related to walking for pleasure or exercise are not necessarily the same as those related to walking to or from specific destinations. For example, one study found that the presence of sidewalks and stores within walking distance were not related to walking for exercise or pleasure, but were related to utilitarian walking. A second study found that highly walkable neighborhoods had more residents who walked to get places, but there was no association between living in a highly walkable neighborhood and walking for exercise. Perception of traffic was not significant in walking for pleasure, but was significant for utilitarian walking in another study.

Aesthetics Significant
Aesthetics were particularly important in walking for exercise or pleasure. Four studies related good neighborhood aesthetics or neighborhood environment to walking for exercise or pleasure. One study found that this was not a factor for women who walked for exercise, although it was for men, while another study found no association between neighborhood environment and walking for exercise or pleasure. Two studies found this factor was not related to utilitarian walking, although the composite environment was related in one study. Three studies found that good aesthetics increased total walking, with one asserting a relationship between neighborhood quality and total walking for women only.

Convenience Important
Access to services and facilities was related to walking. Four studies found that walking for exercise or pleasure was related to convenient facilities, although two studies found no association. Availability of a beach, public open space, or a store within walking distance was related to utilitarian walking in one study. Being close to public transportation increased total walking in one study. Access to public open space was related to increased total walking for women in one study, as were convenient trails, parks, and specific store types.

Impact of Sidewalks Unclear
When examining total walking, two studies found that sidewalks were related to increased walking, while two did not. However, two studies that looked at sprawl and land-use mix did find an association between neighborhood types and total walking, indicating that the neighborhood layout may have more of an influence than the presence or absence of sidewalks by themselves. A few of the studies looked at other factors like crime, traffic, and safety, but with the diversity of studies, it is hard to come to any general conclusions across studies about these factors.

Comfort Decisive Factor
Another aspect of environmental quality is pedestrian comfort, an aspect Sarkar investigates. She states, “In most instances, comfort is one of the decisive factors in determining walking distance.”

Her article examines what makes up pedestrian comfort, and how to begin to measure it. Sarkar separates comfort into micro and macro conditions, with micro conditions being those that contribute to the quality of the pedestrian experience—places to stop and rest, protection from adverse weather through awnings or tree canopies, control of noise, and regulation of air pollution. Macro conditions are those that affect service. This category includes considering how obstructed the walkway is, how it accommodates pedestrians with special needs, and how it adapts to other uses, such as outdoor dining or window shopping. Examples of criteria to support these categories are given in Table 1. Grading on a scale from A (top level) to E (bottom level) every 500 feet can create quantitative values, which can then be used in area assessment or, hopefully, in further studies investigating the relationship between walking and the environment.

Originally published in Issue 4, 2004.

Owen, Neville, Nancy Humpel, Eva Leslie, Adrian Bauman, and James F. Sallis. 2004. Understanding environmental influences on walking: Review and research agenda. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 27 no. 1, pp. 67–76.

Sarkar, Sheila. 2004. Quantitative evaluation of comfort needs in urban walkways in major activity centers. Transportation Quarterly, vol. 57 no. 4, pp. 39–59.