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Study: Residents of walkable areas don't always walk more

Having a walkable neighborhood has become a hot selling point for real estate. It’s also supposed to be better for your health — if it gets you out moving more.

But a study in Seattle suggests people don’t necessarily walk more just because they live in a walkable area.

The neighborhood north of the University of Washington, where the U-District blends into Ravenna, is considered walkable.

“We have sidewalks. It is aesthetically pleasing, and there are destinations you can go to,” said Cindy Perry, a professor at the UW School of Nursing, as we took a walk around the neighborhood.

Perry was curious whether people living in this type of neighborhood really do walk more. She found one answer in a huge study called the Women’s Health Initiative. It includes women from around the country, and a sizable number from Seattle.

About a thousand women in Seattle had answered questions about how much they walk. She put all of their addresses on a map that shows the walkability of every neighborhood in the city. 

“We did not find a clear relationship between the walkability of the neighborhood, those factors, and the women’s level of walking,” said Perry, the lead author of the study published in Health & Place.

It didn’t seem to matter whether the women lived near leafy streets with interesting destinations nearby, or in a cul-de-sac far from shops and parks.

“And that had us step back and look at why we didn’t see the relationship we hoped and we expected to see,” said Perry. 

Two different types of walking

One clue emerges if you look at walking as having two different flavors. There’s recreational walking — you know, people who “go for a walk.” It’s healthy. It can be social.  

Other people walk in order to get somewhere or get things done. That’s transportation walking. 

This study, which had higher numbers of women who are white and middle-to-upper socioeconomic status, could have had more women who walk for recreation – and maybe these women are so motivated that it doesn’t really matter where they live. They might even drive to a park or a trail just to go walking.

An expert on teasing apart these types of walking, Brian Saelens of Seattle Children's Research Institute, says "transportation" walking depends a lot on where you live and work.

“It’s not that people are going to walk miles and miles to get to a destination,” Saelens said. “They have to be close enough so that the tradeoff between walking and driving makes sense for them, to say, ‘Oh, I might as well take a walk, because its just as fast or close to as fast.”’

In studies that look more carefully at how much people walk, by putting a tracking device on them, instead of relying on their recall, Saelens has found transportation walking can go under-reported. People forget that they walked to the bus, or to a store, because they weren't intentionally walking.

Recreational walking, which is what people usually talk about and remember, may depend less on the physical environment.

Thirty minutes a day too much for most

Although many dozens of studies have tried to analyzewhy some people walk and others don't, Saelens says the overwhelming fact is it’s hard to get Americans to walk anywhere near the recommended 30 minutes per day. 

The only proven way, he says, is if they live in high-density, transit-rich neighborhoods. In those areas, walking is useful. They're dense with apartments and shops, driving is a pain, and good transit service means people will walk to a bus-stop or train station. In Seattle, he says, parts of Capitol Hill and Queen Anne fit the bill.

Otherwise, for the rest of us, changing behavior is really complex.

“Just having a beautiful environment isn’t going to move people from the couch to walking,” said Perry. A walkable environment can help, but it's not enough.

When public dollars are limited, and street improvements are expensive, it might make sense to build a few walking trails, but focus more on the social side. For example, hiring someone through a recreation program, to facilitate walking groups or help people meet their neighbors, could get more people walking than pouring sidewalks.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.