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February 18, 2005

Walking the Walk

An article in today's Vancouver Sun (subscription required) reports on a new study showing that, in neighborhoods that are designed to make walking convenient, people do, in fact, walk more.  To wit:

People who lived the most walkable neighborhoods were 2.4 times as likely to walk for 30 minutes or more than those who lived in the least walkable communities.

The study's authors, led by UBC professor Lawrence Frank, defined walkable neighborhoods as having three core characteristics: they're compact, so that distances between destinations are shorter; their street grids connect, so that it's convenient to walk from place to place; and they have a good mixture of stores and homes, so that  people have places to walk to in their daily lives.  In such neighborhoods, people walk because it's a convenient form of transportation, not simply because it's good exercise.

The study has implications not only for transportation planning (places that encourage walking usually have less driving, lower per-capita spending on roads and fuel, etc.) but perhaps more importantly, for health.  A related study published last year showed that people who spend more time in their cars are more likely to be obese, compared with those who walk; and Canada's Heart and Stroke Foundation warned last week that residents of sprawling suburbs, who depend on cars for virtually every trip, are at higher risk of heart disease than are city-dwellers who are more likely to walk or bike from place to place.

But the UBC study, for me, raises one other core point: that our physical environments powerfully guide the choices that are seemingly made of our own free will.  Assuming that exercise is simply a matter of personal responsibility misses the point -- which is that a poorly-designed place makes unhealthy choices (e.g., driving everyhwere) virtually inevitable.  After all, the people who live in compact neighborhoods are really no different than the people who live in sprawling suburbs:  they're all making the most sensible transportation and exercise choices they can, based on the options available to them.

This point--that our environments shape our behavior--is obvious enough, but it tends to get lost in most public debates.  For the most part, public health campaigns around obesity have been designed to educate people about the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet.  But as the rising tide of obesity shows, those campaigns have been completely trumped by an unhealthy human environment--one that offers abundant and inexpensive junk foods, and few good opportunities to exercise. 

So perhaps the real public health campaign should start with designing neighborhoods where healthy choices are the easy ones, rather than the tough ones.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


living in the congested third-world city of mumbai know how relevant this is...the pedestrians have little to no space as the pavements are often in very bad shape, congested with hawkers selling their wares or with paving blocks that have been unevenly laid or with open manholes etc....obviously the absence of opportunities to walk makes it nearly impossible to walk

Posted by: suresh seshadri | Feb 21, 2005 9:02:40 PM

My excellent neighborhood -- Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle -- is among the most walkable in the west coast, by anyone's standards. My little family has been happily car-free for 11 years. Still I am amazed at how hard it is for people to understand how (or why) we live this way. The habits of car-ownership and car-lifestyle are so ingrained, people only see our choice as the set of sacrifices it would require.

Posted by: cary | Feb 23, 2005 12:18:31 PM

Suresh -- Mumbai must be a fascinating place --excessive numbers of pedestrians would be a problem that as an American I wish we had more of. But I can see where more space should be allocated for pedestrian/vending/etc purposes.

Cary -- absolutely, so true -- people don't question the car-using and car-owning assumption. Often, even urban, educated, liberal, physically able, green-minded people don't question it (which I find most odd). But cars are truly the elephant in the living room. How do we break through the denial and obliviousness?

Posted by: Emily | Feb 23, 2005 2:53:11 PM

As for breaking through the denial and getting people to jump on the bandwagon with thinking and acting green, I've found that simply being that person who walks and takes transit everywhere can have a significant impact on other people's habits. I sometimes give my friends transit maps showing train and bus routes all over the city and point out how great it is to ride the train. Some people who would take the bus/train aren't used to living in walkable/transit-accessible cities and don't know how it works. Accompanying them on a few trips can mean a world of difference. Once someone sees how easy it can be, they will be less likely to drive or take a cab!

Posted by: Lindsay | Feb 25, 2005 11:31:44 AM