Impact of Built and Social Environmental Factors That Encourage Walking among Individuals

Scientific Essay, 2017

10 Pages

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Neighborhoods and Walkability

Built Environment and Walking

Crime, Safety, and Walking

Attitudes and Walking

Case Study





There has been a lot of research on the relationship between the built environment and walking activity; however numerous studies have created uncertain or conflicting results. In this research the aim is to look into the association of the built environment with walking activity by examining its impact in cities characterized by high-density development and a well-equipped public transportation system. The results show that neighborhoods with a relatively higher land-use mix and relatively greater access to public transportation have a significantly positive association with walking activity for destinations that are within a 500 m radius of residences. However, no positive association was found between development density by land use and walking activity. Overall, the results of this study indicate that the relationship between the built environment and walking activity differs by neighborhood scale and the urban built environment in terms of density and public transportation and walking attitudes of people across countries.


Jacobs (1961) in her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” described walking as an intricate sidewalk ballet that is a defining factor of good cities and urban livability. Walking not only reinforces this livability, but it also produces a positive impact on public health.

After decades of automobile dominance in cities, walking is back in style. For a multitude of reasons, an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners have converged on the notion that walkable neighborhoods are once again desirable. Architects profess the potential for urban design to create a stronger “sense of community” and a “sense of place”. Some transportation planners attest to the reduction in automobile travel by those living in more pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. These transportation planners claim that well designed, compact neighborhoods can shorten the length or reduce the number of automobile trips, induce individuals to shift from automobile use to alternative forms of transportation, or encourage individuals to relinquish automobiles altogether . Public health professionals have measured the health benefits from an increase in physical activity for those living in pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. The physical compactness of walkable neighborhoods also aligns with environmentalists’ desires to reduce the impact of development on the natural environment. This recent convergence of support for walkable neighborhoods has steered the direction of research away from questions about the benefits of walking toward determining which factors encourage more walking.

While there is broad-ranging consensus about the positive benefits of walking, scholars are less certain about the factors that promote walking in neighborhoods. Is it the built environment, social environment, or lifestyle attitudes that can explain why some individuals walk more than others? More troubling to scholars studying this question is the challenge of which of these factors has a greater influence on walking behavior. One of the key questions emerging from this literature is whether physical design of neighborhoods encourages people to walk even if they hold negative attitudes toward walking?

Neighborhoods and Walkability

A significant part of the late move from auto-oriented to pedestrian oriented neighborhoods can be credited to the New Urbanism (or neotraditional) plan development that developed in the 1990s. New Urbanism outlines call for more pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods that incorporate components, for example, narrower boulevards, tree-lined walkways, shallow setbacks, entryway patios, corner markets, and a town focus that houses municipal structures, retail shops, and open spaces. There is evidence that these neighborhoods encourage more walking than other, more traditionally suburban, neighborhood developments.

Built Environment and Walking

Influenced in part by the New Urbanism movement, several studies have focused on the relationship between urban form and walking and how land use patterns affect pedestrian behavior. Recent attention has been given to studying walking behavior for different subgroups of the population, including school children, the elderly, disabled persons, immigrants, and other groups. The results from these studies have shown a fairly strong link between the built environment and walking behavior. In particular, the proximity of retail and commercial land uses has been attributed to an increased number of walking trips. Case studies by Handy and her colleagues (Cao, Mokhtarian, and Handy 2009b; Handy and Clifton 2001 ;) have shown that the proximity to neighborhood businesses is a robust predictor of walking trips. Several other studies have also found that residents living in or near commercial or mixed-use areas took more frequent walking trips than those who did not.

Numerous studies have also shown that street and sidewalk connectivity is correlated with walking behavior. In a study of twelve neighborhoods in the Puget Sound region, Moudon et al. (1997) found that pedestrian activity was higher in neighborhoods with direct pathways and a more complete system of pedestrian facilities (e.g., block size and sidewalk length). Other studies have shown a correlation between street geometry and walking trips, with higher rates of walking trips reported in neighborhoods with traditional gridiron street patterns.

The quality of the pedestrian environment, such as the presence of street lighting, benches, landscaping, trees, and other amenities has also been cited as a factor by some as a determinant of walking behavior.

While these studies show considerable evidence that built environmental factors matter for walking behavior, the question still remains: to what extent? Despite the large body of literature on this topic, the question of which characteristics of the built environment have the strongest association with walking is still under debate.

Crime, Safety, and Walking

While earlier studies have primarily focused on the relationship between the built environment and crime, exemplified by the concepts of Jane Jacobs’s (1961) “eyes on the street” and Oscar Newman’s (1972) “defensible space” emphasizing the importance of pedestrian-scale environments that promote opportunities for informal community surveillance. Built environment characteristics have been cited as key factors for promoting and mitigating crime in urban settings. Several of these studies have found that criminal activity tends to be concentrated in specific nodes or “hot spots” in the city including bus and rail transit stations Satariano et al. (2010) found that elderly persons who perceived their neighborhood to be unsafe spent less time walking than those who viewed their neighborhoods as safe. These findings suggest that crime rates impact walking trip rates and duration. Fear of crime, while not synonymous with actual crime, often affects one’s decision to walk. While fear can be shaped by actual reported incidences of crime through media reports and accounts from victims, fears are often shaped by one’s perception of the environment and its safety, which may or may not correlate with actual crime rates. Studies have also shown that fear and perceptions of crime vary across socio-demographic groups. For instance, women are more likely to avoid walking at night due to concerns over personal safety. While this may suggest that the gap between perceived risk and actual risk of crime may be larger for women and minority groups, these perceptions nevertheless are likely to have a highly negative impact on walking, even in neighborhoods with low actual crime rates the results from these studies generally point to the conclusion that improving neighborhood safety is the key to promoting more walking trips Therefore, these studies suggest that actual and perceived crime, shaped by built environment and social factors, have a strong impact on walking behavior.

Attitudes and Walking

With respect to walking behavior, some have suggested that attitudinal factors may be a stronger determinant of walking than built environment factors. While most of the studies have shown that observed patterns of walking behavior can be attributed to built environment factors in addition to some residential self-selection, few studies have included attitudinal measurements for walking behavior and no studies to date have segmented the walking population by positive and negative attitudes toward walking.

Case Study

Kenneth Joh, Mai Thi Nguyen, and Marlon G. Boarnet examined the above question using survey information from 2,125 residents of eight neighborhoods in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County, California. They selected eight neighborhoods in the South Bay area for their study: four “center” neighborhoods and four “corridor” neighborhoods. The “center” and “corridor” terms refer to the spatial layout of the neighborhood—the center neighborhoods have a cluster of commercial development in the center (typically the historic downtown and/or civic center) while corridors have commercial development concentrated along an arterial corridor.

They have compare individuals who have positive attitudes about walking to individuals who have negative attitudes toward walking to determine whether physical or social environments differentially affect walking trips in their neighborhood center, controlling for socio-demographic characteristics. While there have been quite a few studies that have examined the relationship between attitudes, physical environment, and social environment, very few studies have examined the relative importance of all three sets of factors. Moreover, Los Angeles area residents are notorious for their auto centricity and, therefore, this study provides for a more stringent test of the influence of the physical and social environments on walking behavior.


Summaries of the overall measures of walking behavior, by study area, are presented in Table 1. The number of per person walking trips per day ranged from a low of 0.083 in Inglewood to a high of 0.276 in Riviera Village. The percentage of respondents walking in their neighborhood center ranged from 8.18 percent in Artesia Boulevard to 53.13 percent in Riviera Village. On average, center neighborhoods reported a higher number of daily individual walking trips (0.191 walking trips) than corridor neighborhoods (0.073 walking trips). In addition, 47.32 percent of respondents from center neighborhoods reported walking in their neighborhood center while only 24.41 percent of respondents living in corridor neighborhoods reported walking. These findings appear to support New Urbanist assertions that people tend to walk more in traditional mixed-use neighborhoods.

The key findings from the regression results, we can observe the following differences between individuals with positive and negative attitudes toward walking based on our sample of South Bay Area residents.

1. In terms of built environment effects, having nearby destinations to walk to (i.e., neighborhood businesses) generates increased walking trips among those with positive attitudes but does not appear to have a significant impact for those with neutral or negative attitudes. Street connectivity did not appear to affect walking trip rates for either group with the exception of intersection density for low walk individuals.
2. In terms of social environment effects, walking trip rates for high-walk individuals were less affected by violent crime rates than low-walk individuals. Attitudes about neighborhood safety were less robust than the crime rate for the low-walk group.

Therefore, the results suggest that certain social environment and built environment factors have a differential impact on high-walk and low-walk individuals, after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics.

These results reveal key insights about how the social and built environment impact walking behavior for individuals with positive and negative attitudes toward walking. With respect to social environment factors, violent crime rates appear to have a stronger impact on walking trips than attitudes toward neighborhood crime and safety. Individuals with neutral or negative attitudes toward walking were much more deterred by crime rates than those with positive attitudes after controlling for built environment measures such as neighborhood destinations or street connectivity.

Furthermore, the results show that certain socio-demographic groups within the high-walk and low-walk group were more likely to walk than others. For instance, among high-walk individuals, households with children were less likely to walk than others, while for low-walk individuals, women and “other race” persons reported fewer walking trips. In terms of built environment impacts, the presence of nearby neighborhood businesses had a stronger positive impact on walking trip rates for high-walk individuals than those with low-walk attitudes. This suggests that having nearby destinations to walk to matter more to residents with positive attitudes, and that not all residents equally take advantage of nearby shopping and service opportunities, even if they live in a walkable neighborhood such as Riviera Village.

Traditional street connectivity measures (intersection density and the percentage of four-way intersections) did not have much of an impact on walking after controlling for crime rates and perceptions of neighborhood safety for high-walk persons, while intersection density had a negative impact for low-walk individuals. While this may be anomalous to the South Bay region, it could also indicate pedestrian safety concerns and the shortage of mid-block and signalized pedestrian crossings in the area.

Based on these results, we can infer that while the built environment and social environment matter for walking, attitudinal bias affects walking trips. Planning scholars and practitioners have largely focused on urban design strategies to promote walking (i.e., how to create or retrofit neighborhoods to make them more pedestrian friendly) while strategies to promote a more positive walking attitude have received far less attention, primarily because of the complexity of attitudinal factors in shaping walking behavior. Individuals with positive attitudes toward walking may have been shaped from previous experiences of living in a pedestrian oriented setting, may have acquired a habit of walking from an early age (e.g., from walking to school), or were influenced by family members and friends to adopt a more active lifestyle. Cultural and societal factors may also play a role in influencing walking attitude, illustrated by the prevalence of walking and bicycling in many European countries, and supported by the common perception that Europeans tend to be more “green conscious” and more physically active. Individuals with neutral or negative attitudes toward walking may not have walked much as a child, had unpleasant walking experiences in the past due to poor social and built environments, or prefer a more sedentary lifestyle. While it is unclear from the data what factors were most influential for shaping positive and negative attitudes for walking, we can observe that these attitudinal biases have a notable impact on how residents viewed their social and built environment with respect to walking.


Planning for sustainable and healthy communities has arguably become the dominant paradigm for urban and community planners in the twenty-first century, with the promotion of walkable communities and walking behavior as its primary thrusts. However, planning scholars and practitioners have largely focused on urban design–oriented solutions to promote walking, such as improving the streetscape and promoting mixed use. The result of these efforts has usually been a modest increase in walking trips, while not necessarily reducing automobile trips. While pursuing these policies is generally a desirable goal, they may not lead to a positive impact on walking trip rates for individuals who have negative attitudes toward walking. Therefore, we should pursue a multipronged approach of improving the built and social environment, as well as promoting positive walking attitudes. Based on the evidence from the study, we can see that the built environment matters more for those with positive attitudes. Individuals who enjoy walking will walk even more if there are interesting places to walk to. In contrast, the built environment does not appear to have much of a positive impact on those with negative attitudes. For those with negative attitudes, the focus should be on changing attitudes to emphasize the benefits of physical activity and to encourage walking. While this is a certainly a challenging task, it should be an equally important policy goal for urban planners, as investments in “retrofitting” neighborhoods to be more pedestrian oriented are likely to yield greater dividends in terms of increased walking trips as individuals adopt more positive attitudes. Hence, the built environment will have a greater impact on walking as we see a shift in individual walking attitudes.However, what about the role of self-selection? If planners and policy makers are successful in changing people’s attitudes toward walking, would they choose to relocate to a neighborhood that more closely matches their preferences for walking. Another reason supporting the notion that most existing residents choose not to relocate is because neighborhoods with good pedestrian environments typically command a premium in terms of home prices and rents, making such places unaffordable to a large segment of the market.

While this may be due to many of these communities being located in expensive housing markets, it could also be reflective of the lack of supply of such neighborhoods, due to zoning regulations that limit compact development. While the study clearly shows differences in walking behavior based on attitudinal disposition, the question of what factors shape attitudes about walking is an important. Can attitudes be shaped simply through increased education about walking? Or are attitudes about walking primarily shaped through past experiences related to walking? While various attitudinal theories have been proposed by scholars in an attempt to explain travel behavior, the understanding of the role of attitudes on travel, especially with respect to walking, remains limited.


1. Boarnet, M., K. Joh, W. Siembab, W. Fulton, and M. Nguyen. 2011. Retrofitting the suburbs to increase walking: Evidence from a land use–travel study. Online:

2. Boarnet, Marlon, Michael Greenwald, and Tracy McMillan. 2008. Walking, urban design, and health: Toward a cost-benefit analysis framework. Journal of Planning Education and Research

3. Cao, X., S. Handy, and P. Mokhtarian. 2006. The influences of thebuilt environment and residential self-selection on pedestrianbehavior: Evidence from Austin, TX.

4. Cao, X., P. Mokhtarian, and S. Handy. 2009b. The relationship between the built environment and nonwork travel: A case study of Northern California. Transportation Research Part A 43.

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6. Handy, S. 1996a. Methodologies for exploring the link between urban form and travel behavior.

7. Handy, S. L., X. Cao, and P. L. Mokhtarian. 2006. Self-selection in the relationship between built environment and walking? Evidence from Northern California

8. Khattak, A. J., and D. Rodriguez. 2005. Travel behavior in neo-traditional neighborhood developments: A case study in USA

9. Oh, A., S. Zenk, J. Wilbur, R. Block, J. McDevitt, and E. Wang. 2010. Effects of perceived and objective neighborhood crime on walking frequency among midlife African American women in a home-based walking intervention. Journal of Physical Activity and Health

10. Newman, O. 1972. Defensible space. New York: Macmillan

11. National Complete Streets Coalition. (n.d.). Let’s complete America’s streets. Retrieved November 15, 2010, from

12. Handy, S., Cao, X., & Mokhtarian, P. (2006). Self-selection in the relationship between the built environment and walking. Journal of the American Planning Association.

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Impact of Built and Social Environmental Factors That Encourage Walking among Individuals
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Mohammad Rajaullah (Author), 2017, Impact of Built and Social Environmental Factors That Encourage Walking among Individuals, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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