UW study finds walkable areas don’t necessarily lead to more walking



A good walking environment may not be enough to encourage more walking, according to a recent study led by UW Associate Professor Cynthia Perry.

The study, which looked specifically at the walking patterns of post-menopausal women, put together data collected from the Women’s Health Initiative Seattle Center with a neighborhood walkability index developed by Dr. Anne Vernez Moudon.

Perry, an associate professor in the UW School of Nursing, wanted to see if a walkable area — a walking area that is aesthetically pleasing, in good condition, and where people feel safe — was directly related to more walking activity. She started this study to find ways in which policy could be changed to promote health.

“I specifically wanted to look at the walkability of a neighborhood because of the policy implications,” she said. “[We wanted to know], if we improve the walkability of neighborhoods, can we get people out walking more, and thereby improve their health.”

Looking at this compiled data, Perry found that post-menopausal women who walk more tend to be white, healthy, have at least a high school education, and participate in greater non-walking exercise as well. However, she did not find a statistically significant relationship between the walkability of an area and the amount of walking done by people in the area.

Not seeing the results she had expected, Perry and her research team decided to look into other factors that play a role in determining how much people walk.

They found that areas with short-distance destinations saw more transportation walking — walking for the purpose of getting somewhere.

Josh Kavanagh, UW director of Transportation Services, believes that easy access to public transportation can also encourage walking.

“Public transportation and walking are intimately connected to one another,” he said. “The first and last leg of any public transportation trip is on foot. I think that a robust public transportation system can very much encourage trips by foot.”

On the other hand, some research indicates that recreational walking — or walking for exercise — is more influenced by socio-cultural elements than the physical layout of an environment.

Julia Cadieux, a stay-at-home mom and resident of the Ravenna neighborhood, is one of the more frequent walkers of the neighborhood. Cadieux believes the environment influences whether or not people walk.

“There’s a lot of big cracks and chunks missing from the sidewalk [in our neighborhood] … and there’s not a lot of safe places to cross the street,” she said. “I think that’s a real deterrent to people walking more in our neighborhood.” 

Despite this, Cadieux and her family have made a conscious decision to walk more in an effort to limit their car use. On a normal day, she and her family can walk for up to two hours: to run errands, go grocery shopping, or go to the park.

Cadieux can cite social benefits of walking as well. It allows her to appreciate her neighborhood more, and feel more like a part of the community. 

“[Walking is] a great way to get to know your neighbors, to get to know the streets, to acquaint yourself with the new neighborhood, and just to be a part of the community, because you’re visible,” she said. “In that sense, it hasn’t been difficult at all, because we reap a lot of benefits from it.”

While Perry’s results do not reflect a clear correlation between walkability and walking, she did want to emphasize the importance of a good walking environment.

“The walkability [and features] of a neighborhood are important and necessary for people to be out walking, but in some cases may not be sufficient,” she said. “We don’t want to lose sight of [the fact that] there’s a lot of literature and research saying that a built environment is important.”

Reach reporter Shirley Qiu at news@dailyuw.com Twitter: @callmeshirleyq

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