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Local amenities encourage people to walk more

neighborhood amenities
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson
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.

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.”

Local accessibility

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.

Regional accessibility

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. 

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 10/15/2019 - 12:03 pm.

    I’m not sure why a study is Australia is relevant to Minnesota. I kept reading looking for something to link this to the Twin Cities. I’ve never been to Australia so I have no idea how spread out their cities are.

    • Submitted by Jeff Christenson on 10/15/2019 - 01:47 pm.

      Why do you suppose a study in Australia wouldn’t be relevant here? I would guess that the studies included cities that are more spread out and those that have more amenities closer in (otherwise how would they be able to draw those conclusions?).

    • Submitted by Brian Gandt on 10/18/2019 - 12:12 pm.

      Betsy, I lived just north of Sydney for two years, 2007-2009. The urban structure from (and including) Sydney, north to Newcastle, isn’t all that different. Big city landscapes to spread out suburban areas. Some areas having cool neighborhood destinations, others, not as much.

      Of course, along the Central Coast, you’re never far from a beach, but maybe that’s another topic.

  2. Submitted by lisa miller on 10/15/2019 - 02:08 pm.

    That’s great, but don’t forget people who have ambulatory limits and neighborhoods have to be safe for people to venture out after dark.

  3. Submitted by Al Andresen on 10/16/2019 - 05:59 am.

    Just another cherrypicked Minnpost “news” article that touts higher property, sales, corporate and income taxes without having to say that it is touting higher property, sales, corporate and income taxes. Let’s spend more and more on publicly financed “amenities”!

    Getting out to walk and actually doing it isn’t that hard, despite the veiled assumptions of this N=1 research study and Minnpost’s need to feature it.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/16/2019 - 10:56 am.

      Did we read the same story? Because I saw nothing in it that touted “higher property, sales, corporate and income taxes,” even with a generous reading of the term “tout.”

      The only publicly finance amenity referenced in the story was public transit, which is typically regarded as a good thing, especially by those of us who use it.

  4. Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/16/2019 - 04:13 pm.

    Obviously a severely limited study with 1 city and self-reported durations. That said, its intuitive that if you have more things to walk to, you walk more. One thing this does not address is the often cited fear that these amenities will hasten the G-word, and people who lived in those neighborhoods pre-ameneity will be forced out.

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