Sidewalks, Streets and Walkability

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Policy makers have been trying to find ways to increase walking in the general public to improve public health, increase transit use and improve general livability in cities. One of the problems facing researchers evaluating or developing policies to increase walking is the lack of agreement on the details of what makes a place “walkable.” The walkability of a place seems to be a complex interaction of the micro-level characteristics of an individual street and the macro-level characteristics of the neighborhood around that street. Researchers have made some progress on the effects of different macro-level attributes like block size, density, and mix of uses, but micro-level attributes have not received as much attention. This paper studies how a selection of micro-level attributes affect perceived walkability. Participants were presented with computer generated pictures of a typical low rise business street with sidewalks, but with different combinations of bike lanes, parallel parking, a planting strip and trees. Participants were asked to rate the walkability of the space for each of the nine different combinations of environmental features and also provided forced choice preferences between pairs of combinations. Statistically significant differences were found among the ratings and the differences were corroborated by the pairwise forced choice data. The findings suggest that alterations to micro-level characteristics (including relatively inexpensive alterations) could alter the perceived walkability of an environment and also suggest that the method employed holds promise for studying the effects of other micro-level attributes.