Built Environment and Walking

Contrary to the claims of many New Urbanists, the “built environment” — such things as density and street connectivity — has almost no effect on the amount of walking people do. At least, that is the finding of a new study by planners and epidemiologists from the University of Minnesota, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The study scrutinized the behavior of 716 adults in 36 neighborhoods with varying densities and connectivities in the Twin Cities. “neither density nor street connectivity are meaningfully related to overall mean miles walked per day or increased total physical activity.” The paper concludes “that the effects of density and block size on total walking and physical activity are modest to non-existent, if not contrapositive.”

The paper notes that “Selection bias and other issues related to socioeconomic status have clouded research” in this area. In other words, papers that claim to have found that density influences walking have failed to adjust for income, education, and/or the preferences of the people in the neighborhoods being studied. This finding confirms that of an Atlanta study mentioned in a previous Antiplanner post.

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21 thoughts on “Built Environment and Walking

  1. Charles

    I have spent some time in various places in the US, and I always found that sprawling suburbs are not that inconvenient to walk around. The roads tend to be quiet, so you can even bike on them, which I did quite a bit, it was a pleasure. The distances do tend to be more than in Europe obviously, but when we talk about combating obesity through more walking/biking, that can hardly be a negative. Here in London however, I wouldn’t even consider biking.

  2. craig

    I prefer Walking in a sprawling neighborhood.

    I like to walk where there are few people to run into, no stop lights to slow me down and no donuts shops to defeat the purpose of the walk.

    When I go to the beach I find a long 2 to 4 mile walk without seeing anyone very rewarding. I don’t miss the hussle and bussle of the vibrant city.

    I don’t have sidewalks in my neighborhood but we don’t need them.

    I never ride my bike on a busy street unless I have no choice and will pick a quiet side street every time.

    I prefer walking for fun not because I have to.

  3. Close Observer

    I, too, can support this by anecdote. I live in the sprawling part of my city and there are walkers, joggers, family-strollers, and bicyclists up and down the sidewalks, visiting the nearby park, etc. all around the area. When I leave for work in the a.m., they’re there. When I drive my automobile home for lunch, they’re there. When I come home in the early or sometimes late evening, they’re there. (I’ve been known to do a jog or two, too. This better-health lifestyle is achieved because I drive home quickly in my automobile rather than taking public transit, so I have time to exercise.)

    Question: Don’t these suburban eco-terrorists read Smart Growth literature? They’re supposed to be vegging out on the couch, getting fat. Quick, Dan, send them a memo . . . better yet, send them a study!

    When I have to go downtown for business, I see none of that. If I drive through (b/c main arterials are congested) or parallel to a residential area on my way out, I never, never, never see that kind of street activity.

    Another observation: during the Christmas holiday, the sprawling neighoods out here in the hinterlands have lots of lawn ornaments – large, inflatable Santas, reindeer, mangers, and even a Menorah or two.

    Strangely, these visible displays are absent in our urban core. Why? Perhaps (the fewer) homeowners there fear their display will disappear by morn because crime is higher in the city than in the ‘burbs. Or maybe there are fewer families with young children because living in greater density zones is much more expensive and the schools are worse than in the horrid ‘burbs.

    Again, just anecdote. Dan, please cite me a study that “proves” I’ve been hallucinating about what I’ve observed.

  4. TexanOkie

    Well, the two posters before me already outlined this from the other perspective, but, uh, yeah… when planners talk about walking and cycling we usually are talking about it in an alternative transit sense, not a recreational sense (that’s just an added bonus that helps back up the first argument), and because of that the increased distances the two previous contributors noticed is what hinders walking as a form of transportation.

  5. Dan

    First of all, interesting paper.

    Dan, please cite me a study that “proves” I’ve been hallucinating about what I’ve observed.

    Science doesn’t “prove”. However, I’ve provided numerous links to studies that show such (follow Randal’s link above). Read the literature to get an understanding of the issue so you can better interpret what you see & make supportable conclusions.

    This finding confirms that of an Atlanta study mentioned in a previous Antiplanner post.

    Wasn’t a study, Randal. One would think a “scholar” or an “economist” would be able to tell the difference. Apparently you want to continue to be unable to understand. Nonetheless,

    The confounding factors in environmental correlates to walkability are well known and much discussed. Discussed here on this site by me, perhaps a handful of times.

    First, the important distinction in this paper – and full results that Randal chose not to quote:

    While crude differences are evident across all outcomes, adjusted effects show increased odds of travel walking in higher-density areas and increased odds of leisure walking in low-connectivity areas, but neither density nor street connectivity are meaningfully related to overall mean miles walked per day or increased total physical activity. [emphasis added]

    That is: walking to somewhere replaces driving to somewhere in dense areas.

    This is obvious, and of course explains why denser areas have lower TPD and VMT. Now that Randal has pointed out that denser areas support fewer vehicle trips, we can finally put that…erm…”debate” to rest here on this site. Next,

    The walkability issue:

    As Plantinga and Bernell (OSU) attest, agents self-sort to walkable areas, as this interpretation of the issue explores. Better self-sorting abilities indicates higher socioeconomic status (SES), as the authors of the paper Randal sooo wants to refute environment-walking connection state (final para).

    So this paper is a good incremental step forward. It clarifies activity purpose and likelihood to engage in that activity.

    Does it refute the environment/walkability/health link? The authors don’t think so – why would Randal?

    DS

  6. Ettinger

    One would also inhale much more smog in a street in Paris, London or almost any other European city with a, say, even 50% transit ridership, than he would inhale even in a Los Angeles suburb.

    Yes, perhaps a European city emmits less TOTAL smog than the equivalent US city, however the smog in the denser European city is, of course, all densly emmitted in a small area which happens to be the same area that you live, and HAVE to walk. And all the smog also tends to remain trapped between the tall high density buildings. Try to walk to your local bakery on an uphill one way road in Paris or Rome and you will see what I mean.

  7. Ettinger

    I will echo the observation about the walkability of US suburbs. Apart from my own experiences in living in Europe, I’ve had many European relatives and friends visit me over the years. They laugh at claims that American cities offer no place to walk. US suburbs offer more, and in most cases, more pleasant opportunities for walking. But unlike European cities they do not FORCE you to walk. And yes, apparently when not forced to, most people seem to choose not to walk.

    Funy thing is that I’m actually a long distance runner and run 40-50 miles a week, mostly on US suburbia sidewalks. Whenever I have to run in Europe I end up coughing up a lung from the smog.

    I am amused by the idealistic comparisons with Europe that I hear from, especially some young, Americans. It does not seem they’ve ever lived in Europe for any significant amount of time.

  8. bennett

    Walkability is a funny issue (especially according to this report). What we have to ask ourselves is why we are walking. Are we fat yuppies that can’t run or play sports for leisure? If so, we walk around our house farm neighborhood in a desperate attempt to get into shape. If we are walking to get somewhere or to do something (other than mitigate the growing of our posteriors) street connectivity and density do make a difference, not to mention other “new urbanist” principals. In fact, the study for this post speaks to this. Planners don’t treat all walkers equally. They may encourage and plan walking places for leisure, but walking to and from “active uses” (i.e. homes to shops) is much more important to them.

  9. Francis King

    “While crude differences are evident across all outcomes, adjusted effects show increased odds of travel walking in higher-density areas and increased odds of leisure walking in low-connectivity areas, but neither density nor street connectivity are meaningfully related to overall mean miles walked per day or increased total physical activity.”

    I am a bear with a very small brain, and I don’t understand some of the (deliberately) odd words that they use – but the above pretty much sums it up, I think.

    If people are walking somewhere to do business, they are limited by how far they can walk – a mixture of effort and time. You CAN cycle 100 miles a day, but it will take all day. If on the other hand, people walk for leisure, with very little in the way of time limits or utilitarian purpose, they prefer the open spaces and pleasant surroundings of the suburbs.

    Is this a reasonable interpretation of the above?

    Question – can we combine high density and nice surroundings? I think the answer is yes. The next question is – how many people believe or agree with this vision?

    http://www.carfree.com/cft/index.html

  10. craig

    Francis King said:

    Question – can we combine high density and nice surroundings? I think the answer is yes. The next question is – how many people believe or agree with this vision?

    answer: maybe for some

    I have lived in a fairly high density neighborhoods and biked to and from work and parked my car for about 2 years.

    I do not want to live like that again. I was young, It was fine then. I now prefer to be away from high density areas because I prefer to live in the burbs and stay away from the inner city and all the people. I prefer a very large yard 1/2 acer to 20 acres to a public park.

    If you want to live that way just do it but don’t expect me to follow you.

    My next move when I can afford it, is to mover farther away and buy a bigger lot or more acreage.

    All the studies in the world will not change my mine. I grew up in what my grandmother described as. “Why would anyone want to live way the hell out there”

    Well we loved it!

  11. Close Observer

    Well, craig, it is obvious that you are selfish carbon-emitter at war with Mother Gaia. One day we’ll have laws against your attitude. We already have hate crimes because we-who-are-smarter-than-you know that a murderer who hates someone is much different than a murderer who . . . nevermind.

    One day, joining the list of hate crimes will be attitudes-about-living crimes! Now, back to Utne Reader!

  12. Ettinger

    “If you want to live that way just do it but don’t expect me to follow you.”

    And that is the main point.

    The main planning question is not whether people should prefer to live in Manhattan vs. Orange County; whether it is good for them etc. The question is whether people should be forced to live in scaled down versions of Manhattan and metropolitan Paris and whether they should be forced to pay for a plan that they neither want nor use.

    Many of the articles posted by Randall make the point that planners do not even achieve their own stated goals. Certainly that may give them a black eye, but for most people this is not the main issue with planning.

    The main issue is to what extent should individuals be forced to live in some planner’s vision, to what extent other alternatives should be acted against by those that have visions of universal mandatory great societies and to what extent should individuals be forced to pay for the planner’s plan even if they don’t live in it.

    Go ahead and create the planned cities that you want, but don’t try to eliminate the alternatives to pressure me into moving inside the high density plan. I actually do appreciate diversity in aspirations and I understand that there are people attracted by high density at some point of their life or another. So, by all means, those who like high density, go and live there, but don’t force me to move there too and don’t force me to pay for the high density and infrastructure that you want.

    Same thing goes for roads. Please refund me the taxes that I pay for freeways and let me pay a fraction of the budget whenever I use the road.

  13. Ettinger

    “Or maybe there are fewer families with young children because living in greater density zones is much more expensive and the schools are worse than in the horrid ‘burbs.”

    And that correlates to why European birth rate and population are in decline. Only immigrants keep the population from sinking even faster.

  14. craig

    Ettinger said:

    Same thing goes for roads. Please refund me the taxes that I pay for freeways and let me pay a fraction of the budget whenever I use the road.

    You got your wish Roads are paid for out of user fees, gas taxes, fed and local, registration fees weight and mile for trucks and the business and new home that build their own streets to their homes.

  15. Ettinger

    “You got your wish…”

    Yes, perhaps I do get most of my wish, since roads are mostly financed from excise taxes. But if I’m not mistaken, some subsidies remain, although I do not know what percentages of road budgets these subsidies represent.

  16. Dan

    Roads are paid for out of user fees, gas taxes, fed and local, registration fees weight and mile for trucks and the business and new home that build their own streets to their homes.

    Please explain to me, then, why my current and former cities both paved local access roads and muni parking lots out of General Fund money. Thank you in advance.

    DS

  17. craig

    DS said,
    Please explain to me, then, why my current and former cities both paved local access roads and muni parking lots out of General Fund money. Thank you in advance.

    I guess the same reason our auto and truck taxes are diverted to billion dollar transit projects and planning Smart Growth developments in Oregon.

    Because politicians are in charge and the funds aren’t dedicated.

  18. Lorianne

    I lived in a ‘close-in’ older neighborhood in Portland OR for approx 3 years. I walked a lot more because the neighborhood was lovely and there was great stuff to walk to (restaurants, pubs, several groceries, bookstore, even a mall!).

    The problem is this Portland neighborhood grew this way over approx. 100 years. You can’t replicate that in a new development in a reasonable amount of time. New TNDs would work great if they could replicate the real TNDs and of course that’s their goal. But it just can’t happen overnight.

    Could it be way to early to judge them?

    Neighborhoods, all kinds of neighborhoods take time to mature and develop their own character. I commend the new TND’s for trying to emulate the best of orignal TNDs, but it’s a steep curve to be sure.

  19. Francis King

    ” “Or maybe there are fewer families with young children because living in greater density zones is much more expensive and the schools are worse than in the horrid ‘burbs.”

    And that correlates to why European birth rate and population are in decline. Only immigrants keep the population from sinking even faster.”

    I suspect that it has more to do with the confusion surrounding children.

    Are they citizens in their own right? Or should they be considered to be the property of their parents?

    Who should pay for them? The parents? The state? If the parents pay for them, adults without children can better afford houses, cars, holidays. If the state pays for them, then childless couples will end up paying for those who want children.

    The current situation is that the children are still considered to be the property of their parents, and the parents pay for them. Net result – falling birth rates amongst the community as a whole.

  20. Ettinger

    Francis thanks for the reminders as to why I’m happy to have left Europe.

    Those of you Americans that aspire to lead America in the European direction, please admire the European debate as to whether your children belong to you or the state / public.

  21. prk166

    Francis King—> You’re point is spot on. A couple days a week I take the train instead of driving to work. It literally takes me twice as long. But I use the time waiting for and on the train to read (something I would do anyway; sometimes on the train I do work. And I get in a good brisk walk twice a day (@45 minutes of it). But if I have anything going on to get to, I drive. I can leave my desk at 4 and be home by 4:30. I’d hate to be in a situation where I had little choice but to take the train. I’d be locked into that time just for getting back and forth.

    Once things get a little warmer I’m going to give biking a try. I’m not sure how well that will work in terms of time and route. I do know it won’t be as efficient as driving.

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