The Influence of the Built Environment on Travel Behaviors
The built environment—which includes buildings, streets, parks, and other man-made physical surroundings—affects a person’s choices regarding opportunities for physical activity and the safety of engaging in physical activity.
The decision to walk or bicycle for short trips often depends on time, purpose, or environmental factors. Research shows that features of the built environment such as sidewalks, street lights, traffic, hills, and overall walkability are related to travel behaviors. This section highlights research suggesting that the make-up of streets and the built environment can play a role in physical activity promotion and active travel behaviors, especially among children to and from school.
- Analysis reveals that the distance between home and school is the most important factor in determining whether a child used active transport to get to school (Larsen, et al., 2009).
- Only 14% of students aged 5-14 years usually walk to school (Beck, et al., 2008).
- The most frequently reported barrier to walking to school is distance (Beck, et al., 2008).
- A 5% increase in neighborhood walkability is associated with:Results show that children who pass completed Safe Routes to School projects are more likely to show increases in walking or bicycle travel than are children who do not pass by projects (15% vs 4%), supporting the effectiveness of Safe Routes to School construction projects in increasing walking or bicycling to school for children who pass these projects on their way to school (Boarnet, et al., 2005).
- 32.1% more minutes devoted to physically active travel
- 6.5% fewer vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita (Frank, et al., 2006)
Academic Research Articles and Findings:
- Neighborhood designs often relate to physical activity and to body mass index (BMI).
- The authors wanted to find out if neighborhood walkability/bikeability relates to BMI and obesity risk and whether moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) account for some of the relationship?
- Census 2000 provided walkability/bikeability measures—block group proportions of workers who walk or bike to work, housing age, and population density—and National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES 2003–2006) provided MVPA accelerometer measures. Regression analyses (2011–2012) adjusted for geographic clustering and multiple control variables.
- Greater density and older housing were associated with lower male BMI in bivariate analyses, but there were no density and housing age effects in multivariate models. For women, greater proportions of neighborhood workers who walk to work (M=0.02) and more MVPA was associated with lower BMI and lower obesity risk. For men, greater proportions of workers who bike to work (M=0.004) and more MVPA was associated with lower BMI and obesity risk. For both effects, MVPA partially mediated the relationships between walkability/bikeability and BMI. If such associations are causal, doubling walk and bike-to-work proportions (to 0.04 and 0.008) would have −0.3 and −0.33 effects on the average BMIs of adult women and men living in the neighborhood. This equates to 1.5 pounds for a 64-inch-tall woman and 2.3 pounds for a 69-inch-tall man.
- Although walking/biking to work is rare in the U.S., greater proportions of such workers in neighborhoods relate to lower weight and higher MVPA. Bikeability merits greater attention as a modifiable activity-friendliness factor, particularly for men.
Brown BB, Smith KR, Hanson H, Fan JX, Kowaleski-jones L, Zick CD. (2013) Neighborhood design for walking and biking: physical activity and body mass index. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 44(3), 231-238.
- This research review considered how policy and built environment could impact energy expenditure in youth.
- Most American youth are not meeting the 60 minutes per day recommendation for moderate- to vigorous- intensity physical activity (MVPA). The CDC Community Guide and School Health Guidelines to Promote Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Guides both suggest that policy and built environment changes will affect everyone exposed to a given environment and will have long lasting effects.
- The authors seek to provide policymakers with information for more informed decisions by quantifying the increase in energy expenditure due to school-based policies and built environment changes
- For this review, scientific studies evaluating policy and/or built environment changes were identified and 85 of 300 studies published in English were selected. The impact of various strategies for increasing physical activity in youth was estimated from objective measurements or direct observation.
- Within school settings, the average minutes of MVPA gained per school day for studies in each intervention category were as follows:
- School settings: Mandatory physical education (23 minutes); Classroom activity breaks (19 minutes); Afterschool activity programs (10 minutes); Standardized physical education curricula (6 minutes more than traditional physical education); Modifıed playgrounds (6 minutes); Modifıed recess (5 minutes more than traditional recess)
- Community Setting: Active commuting (16 minutes); Park renovations (12 minutes); Proximity to parks (1 minute). No conclusions could be drawn regarding joint-use agreements, because of a lack of studies quantifying their impact on energy expenditure.
- The largest effects were seen with mandatory physical education, classroom activity breaks, and active commuting to school. Policymakers can use this information along with estimates of the cost, feasibility, and population reach, to identify the best options for increasing physical activity in youth.
David R. Bassett, PhD, Eugene C. Fitzhugh, PhD, Gregory W. Heath, DHSc, MPH, Paul C. Erwin, MD, DrPH, Ginny M. Frederick, MS, Dana L. Wolff, MS, Whitney A. Welch, MS, Aaron B. Stout, MS. (2013). Estimated Energy Expenditures for School-Based Policies and Active Living. Am J Prev Med, 44(2), 108-113.
- This study was designed to examine whether residents living in neighborhoods that are less conducive to walking or other physical activities are more likely to develop diabetes and, if so, whether recent immigrants are particularly susceptible to such effects.
- The authors conducted a population-based, retrospective cohort study to assess the impact of neighborhood walkability on diabetes incidence among recent immigrants (n = 214,882) relative to long-term residents (n = 1,024,380). Adults aged 30–64 years who were free of diabetes and living in Toronto, Canada, on March 31, 2005 were identified from administrative health databases and followed until March 31, 2010 for the development of diabetes, using a validated algorithm. Neighborhood characteristics, including walkability and income, were derived from the Canadian Census and other sources.
- Neighborhood walkability was a strong predictor of diabetes incidence independent of age and area income, particularly among recent. Coexisting poverty accentuated these effects; diabetes incidence varied threefold between recent immigrants living in low-income/low walkability areas (16.2 per 1,000) and those living in high-income/high walkability areas (5.1 per 1,000).
- Neighborhood walkability was inversely associated with the development of diabetes in our setting, particularly among recent immigrants living in low-income areas.
Booth, G. L., M. I. Creatore, et al. (2012). Unwalkable Neighborhoods, Poverty, and the Risk of Diabetes Among Recent Immigrants to Canada Compared With Long-Term Residents. Diabetes Care.
- To better understand bicyclists’ preferences for facility types, GPS units were used to observe the behavior of 164 cyclists in Portland, Oregon, USA for several days each. Trip purpose and several other trip-level variables recorded by the cyclists, and the resulting trips were coded to a highly detailed bicycle network.
- The authors used the 1449 non-exercise, utilitarian trips to estimate a bicycle route choice model. The model used a choice set generation algorithm based on multiple permutations of path attributes and was formulated to account for overlapping route alternatives.
- The findings suggest that cyclists are sensitive to the effects of distance, turn frequency, slope, intersection control (e.g. presence or absence of traffic signals), and traffic volumes. In addition, cyclists appear to place relatively high value on off-street bike paths, enhanced neighborhood bikeways with traffic calming features (aka “bicycle boulevards”), and bridge facilities.
- Bike lanes more or less exactly offset the negative effects of adjacent traffic, but were no more or less attractive than a basic low traffic volume street. Finally, route preferences differ between commute and other utilitarian trips; cyclists were more sensitive to distance and less sensitive to other infrastructure characteristics for commute trips.
Broach, J., J. Dill, et al. (2012). Where Do Cyclists Ride? A Route Choice Model Developed with Revealed Preference GPS Data. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 46(10):1730-1740.
- Availability of public neighborhood parks is associated with physical activity. Little is known about how parks contribute to population energy balance. This study estimated energy expenditure associated with the use of neighborhood parks and compared energy expenditure by activity areas within parks and by neighborhood race/ethnicity and income.
- The System for Observing Play and Leisure Activity among Youth (SOPLAY), a direct observation approach, was used to estimate energy expenditure in 10 Tampa, Florida parks and 19 Chicago, Illinois parks. The parks were selected from census tracts with a moderate to high representation of white, Latino, and African American populations. A total of 9454 park users were observed, and sedentary, moderate, and vigorous activities were assigned metabolic equivalence intensity (MET) values of 1.5, 3, and 6, respectively.
- Park use in Tampa generated 15 336 total METs over the study period. Chicago parks generated 7305.6 METs. Mean METs varied by activity areas in parks. For Chicago parks, mean METs were higher for parks in African American and higher-income neighborhoods.
- Public parks can contribute to population energy balance. Policies to make parks available, promotions to encourage park use, and programs to encourage active use of parks are necessary to achieve this potential.
Suau, L. J., M. F. Floyd, et al. (2012). Energy Expenditure Associated With the Use of Neighborhood Parks in 2 Cities. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 18(5): 440-444.
- This article reports on a study that explored the barriers that prevent parents from allowing their children to commute to school.
- The authors used data from parents of school children in Illinois, U.S., as reported in the National Safe Routes to School Parent Surveys.
- The study finds that the top barriers for both urban and suburban children were intersection safety and traffic speed/volume. Distance from school had a greater impact on the walking or bicycling to school habits of suburban students compared to urban students.
- The authors contend that actively commuting to school gives children the opportunity to explore nature, get exercise, and develop cognitive skills. With the barriers to active commuting to school identified, the Safe Routes to School Programs in Illinois can target their resources effectively to encourage children and their parents to consider walking and biking alternatives for trips to and from school.
Fries, R., E. Sykut, et al. (2012). Barriers Influencing Illinois Children School Travel Mode Choices. Advances in Transportation Studies 27.
- Walking and bicycling are important but underused modes of transportation in the United States. Road design influences how much walking and bicycling takes place along streets and roads. Currently, numerous national policy initiatives, including Safe Routes to School and Complete Streets, are attempting to improve pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure and “friendliness.” However, no state has completed a systematic assessment of its streets to determine how amenable they are to walking and bicycling. This statewide study was undertaken to assess how accessible and friendly Hawaii roads are to these 2 activities.
- The authors randomly selected street segments in Hawaii’s 4 counties and then completed objective assessments using the Pedestrian Environmental Data Scan. They audited 321 segments, and interrater reliability was adequate across all measures. Streets were coded as high (42.4%) or low capacity (57.6%) depending on how much vehicular traffic the street was designed to accommodate. Outcome measures included street accommodations (ie, sidewalks and crossing aids) and pedestrian and bicyclist use.
- Most high-capacity streets had sidewalks (66%). These sidewalks were usually in good condition, contiguous, and had traffic control devices and pedestrian signals. Most low-capacity roads did not have sidewalks (63.4%). Bicycling facilities were limited (<10%) on both types of roads. Pedestrian and bicycle traffic was related to mixed use, including both residential and retail space, and to pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure.
- Road segments in Hawaii with more infrastructure and types of use, including single-family houses, apartment complexes, restaurants, office buildings, and industrial buildings, are used more by pedestrians and bicyclists.
Maddock JE, Ramirez V, Heinrich KM, Zhang M, Brunner IM. (2012). “A Statewide Observational Assessment of the Pedestrian and Cycling Environment in Hawaii, 2010.” Preventing Chronic Disease.
- This paper examines parents' responses to key factors associated with mode choices for school trips. The research was conducted with parents of elementary school students in Denver Colorado as part of a larger investigation of school travel.
- School-based active travel programs aim to encourage students to walk or bike to school more frequently. To that end, planning research has identified an array of factors associated with parents' decisions to drive children to school. Many findings are interpreted as ‘barriers’ to active travel, implying that parents have similar objectives with respect to travel mode choices and that parents respond similarly and consistently to external conditions. While the conclusions are appropriate in forecasting demand and mode share with large populations, they are generally too coarse for programs that aim to influence travel behavior with individuals and small groups.
- This research uses content analysis of interview transcripts to examine the contexts of factors associated with parents' mode choices for trips to and from elementary school. Short, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 65 parents from 12 Denver Public Elementary Schools that had been selected to receive 2007–08 Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure grants. Transcripts were analyzed using Nvivo 8.0 to find out how parents respond to selected factors that are often described in planning literature as ‘barriers’ to active travel.
- Regular active travel appears to diminish parents' perceptions of barriers so that negotiation becomes second nature. Findings from this study suggest that intervention should build capacity and inclination in order to increase rates of active travel.
Zuniga, Kelly Draper. (2012). “From Barrier Elimination to Barrier Negotiation: A Qualitative Study of Parents’ Attitudes about Active Travel for Elementary School Trips” Transport Policy 20: 75–81.
- Although a health impact assessment (HIA) is a tool that can provide decision makers with recommendations to promote positive health impacts and mitigate adverse health impacts of proposed projects and policies, it is not routinely conducted on most major projects or policies.
- To make health a decision criterion for the Atlanta BeltLine, a multibillion-dollar transit, trails, parks, and redevelopment project, a HIA was conducted in 2005–2007 to anticipate and influence the BeltLine's effect on health determinants.
- Changes in access and equity, environmental quality, safety, social capital, and physical activity were forecast, and steps to maximize health benefits and reduce negative effects were recommended.
- Key recommendations included giving priority to the construction of trails and greenspace rather than residential and retail construction, making health an explicit goal in project priority setting, adding a public health professional to decision-making boards, increasing the connectivity between the BeltLine and civic spaces, and ensuring that affordable housing is built. BeltLine project decision makers have incorporated most of the HIA recommendations into the planning process. The HIA was cited in the awarding of additional funds of $7,000,000 for brownfield clean-up and greenspace development. The project is expected to promote the health of local residents more than in the absence of the HIA.
- This report is one of the first HIAs to tie specific assessment findings to specific recommendations and to identifiable impacts from those recommendations. The lessons learned from this project may help others engaged in similar efforts.
Ross, C. L., K. Leone de Nie, et al. (2012). "Health Impact Assessment of the Atlanta BeltLine." American journal of preventive medicine 42(3): 203-213.
- Limited evidence exists on the metabolic and cardiovascular risk correlates of commuting by vehicle, a habitual form of sedentary behavior.
- To examine the association between commuting distance, physical activity, cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), and metabolic risk indicators.
- This cross-sectional study included 4297 adults who had a comprehensive medical examination between 2000 and 2007 and geocoded home and work addresses in 12 Texas metropolitan counties. Commuting distance was measured along the road network. Outcome variables included weekly MET-minutes of self-reported physical activity, CRF, BMI, waist circumference, triglycerides, plasma glucose, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and continuously measured metabolic syndrome. Outcomes were also dichotomized using established cut-points. Linear and logistic regression models were adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics, smoking, alcohol intake, family history of diabetes, and history of high cholesterol, as well as BMI and weekly MET-minutes of physical activity and CRF (for BMI and metabolic risk models). Analyses were conducted in 2011.
- Commuting distance was negatively associated with physical activity and CRF and positively associated with BMI, waist circumference, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and continuous metabolic score in fully adjusted linear regression models. Logistic regression analyses yielded similar associations; however, of the models with metabolic risk indicators as outcomes, only the associations with elevated blood pressure remained significant after adjustment for physical activity and CRF.
- Commuting distance was adversely associated with physical activity, CRF, adiposity, and indicators of metabolic risk.
Hoehner, C. M., C. E. Barlow, et al. (2012). "Commuting Distance, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Metabolic Risk." American journal of preventive medicine 42(6): 571-578.
- To successfully stimulate cycling, it is necessary to understand the factors that facilitate or inhibit cycling. Little is known about how changes in the neighborhood environment are related to changes in cycling behavior.
- This study aimed to identify environmental determinants of the uptake of cycling after relocation.
- The RESIDential Environment Project (RESIDE) is a longitudinal natural experiment of people moving into new housing developments in Perth (Western Australia). Self-reported usual transport and recreational cycling behavior, as well as self-reported and objective built environmental factors were measured before and after residential relocation. Participants who did not usually cycle at baseline in 2003–2004 were included in the study. Logistic regression models were used to relate changes in built environmental determinants to the probability of taking up cycling after relocation (2005–2006). Analyses were carried out in 2010–2011.
- At baseline, 90% (n=1289) of the participants did not cycle for transport and 86% (n=1232) did not cycle for recreation. After relocation, 5% of the noncyclists took up transport-related cycling, and 7% took up recreational cycling. After full adjustment, the uptake of transport-related cycling was determined by an increase in objective residential density (OR=1.54, 95% CI=1.04, 2.26) and self-reported better access to parks (OR=2.60, 95% CI=1.58, 4.27) and other recreation destinations (OR=1.57, 95% CI=1.12, 2.22). Commencing recreational cycling mostly was determined by an increase in objective street connectivity (OR=1.20, 95% CI=1.06, 1.35).
- Changes in the built environment may support the uptake of cycling among formerly noncycling adults.
Beenackers, M. A., S. Foster, et al. (2012). "Taking Up Cycling After Residential Relocation: Built Environment Factors." American journal of preventive medicine 42(6): 610-615.
- Although being active is vital to the health and well-being of children, increases in physical activity can lead to an elevated risk of injury, which is a leading cause of childhood mortality globally.
- This article provides an overview of the evidence base concerning unintentional injuries associated with popular forms of physical activities for youth, and describes how injury prevention and child obesity professionals can work together to prevent injuries while promoting active lifestyles.
- Policy and environmental interventions that are beneficial to both outcomes are highlighted and recommendations for future research for these complementary areas are also provided.
Pollack, K. M., C. Kercher, et al. (2012). "Toward environments and policies that promote injury-free active living—it wouldn't hurt." Health & Place 18(1): 106-114.