If we want people to walk more — and public health officials seem to agree that we do — than we need to be making our communities more walkable.
And that doesn’t mean just adding sidewalks and walking paths (although those are good things). It means creating neighborhoods with plenty of useful and desirable places to walk to, such as shops, local cafés, grocery stores, dentists, libraries and other services.
For, as a new Australian study has found, people who live and work in such neighborhoods spend significantly more time getting about on foot than those who live where shops and other amenities are scarce.
If neighborhoods also offer good access to public transportation that can take their residents further afield, people are apt to walk even more, the study also found.
“City and urban design and transport planning have the potential to deliver a regular extra dose of what’s been described as the ‘miracle cure’ of exercise by encouraging us to walk more,” write two of the study’s authors, epidemiologist Rebecca Bentley of the University of Melbourne and researcher Hannah Badland of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, in an article on the study for The Conversation.
“A variety of walkable destinations that support people’s daily living needs to be designed into existing and, more importantly, new developments,” they stress. “That means at locations where we live, work, and study.”
For the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, Bentley, Badland and their co-authors examined the walking habits of a representative sample of almost 5,000 adult commuters in the Melbourne metropolitan area. The data came from a survey on travel and activity taken between 2012 and 2014.
Using the addresses of the commuters’ homes and places of work or study (such as a university), the researchers determined how many useful destinations — ones that supported the ability of people to live locally — were within a 10-minute walk (about a half mile) of those locations. The destinations included such amenities as grocery stores, butchers and other specialty food stores, coffee shops and cafés, medical clinics, libraries, post offices, child care facilities and public transit stops.
Urban planners sometimes refer to these kinds of destinations as local accessibility.
An analysis of the data revealed that people with good local accessibility near their home, work or place of study walked an average of about 12 minutes per day compared to only seven minutes per day for those with limited access to local facilities — about 70 percent more.
More specifically, when people had good local accessibility near their homes, they walked an average of five minutes more per day. When the local accessibility was near their place of work or study, they walked an average of nine minutes more.
Those may seem like small differences in time walked, but on the population level, they are significant, the researchers point out.
Next, the researchers looked at the relationship between the participants’ walking habits and certain measures of regional accessibility.
“We looked at people’s relative travel commute time by public transport compared with driving, the level of public transport service accessible from where they lived, worked or studied, and the number of jobs within 30 minutes of people’s homes by public transport,” Bentley and Badland explain.
They found that greater regional accessibility was linked to more time walking.
“For example, after accounting for local accessibility, people living in places with a higher number of jobs available within a 30-minute public transport journey walked just over four minutes more on average than people in areas with very low job availability,” the two researchers write.
“People living in places where taking public transport was more efficient timewise than driving, walked more than seven minute extra a day compared with people with low levels of public transport,” they add.
Furthermore, people who were exposed to good local accessibility and good regional accessibility (through public transport) were even more likely to travel by foot — about 10 minutes more on an average day.
“Public transport effectively separates people from their own vehicle, be it at home or a park-and-ride stop,” Bentley and Badland write. “Public transport delivers them as pedestrians close to their destination, which in turn promotes walking throughout the day.”
‘Truly smart and healthy cities’
The study comes with several limitations. It involved only commuting adults living in one Australian metropolitan area, for example, so the findings may or may not be applicable to other populations. Also, the survey takers self-reported their walking behaviors. Such reports are not always accurate.
Still, these findings are supported by plenty of other research showing that people who live in neighborhoods with lots of local amenities — useful destination spots — are more likely to engage in “active travel,” such as walking and cycling.
If we want people to walk more, we need to design (or redesign) the neighborhoods where we live and work so that there are places to walk to.
“Cities that support people to walk more will provide populations health benefits through increased physical activity,” write Bentley and Badland, “helping them to become truly smart and healthy cities.”
FMI: Environmental Health Perspectives is an open-access journal, so you can read the study in full on the journal’s website.