USC Price School of Public Policy

Attitude Is Everything in Walking Study

Attitude Is Everything in Walking Study

By Andrew Good

Marlon Boarnet Professor Marlon Boarnet conducted a study focusing on positive and negative feelings toward walking.
Photo by Tom Queally

City planners long have debated how to get people on their feet and cars off the road. But encouraging urban dwellers to go pedestrian could require different strategies depending on their attitudes toward walking, according to USC Sol Price School of Public Policy professor Marlon Boarnet.

The research comes at a time when scholars from multiple disciplines tout the value of walking for health and environmental benefits as much as to alleviate congestion.

Boarnet, along with colleagues at Texas A&M University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently published a study on the role attitudes play on whether people walk or drive.

What they found is that people can be split into those who are walking-oriented and those who are not. Those who don’t mind walking can be encouraged to leave their cars behind if they live in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with businesses accessible by foot. But environmental factors weren’t enough to influence those with negative feelings toward walking.

What’s more, little is known about the causes of those negative feelings, let alone how urban planners can address them.

“We were intrigued to find this split,” Boarnet said, adding that studies in this area largely have overlooked the role attitude plays in walking. “There are still only a few studies that look at how attitudes influence the link between the built environment and walking.”

The study, which was published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research in November, surveyed 2,125 residents in eight Los Angeles neighborhoods in the South Bay. The neighborhoods were split between being “center” oriented (older communities with development surrounding a central commercial district) and “corridor” oriented (post-World War II, suburban developments based along a main artery road). The 155-item survey included questions about the number of trips made in a day, the purpose of those trips and their mode of transportation. Respondents also were asked attitude questions, such as gauging their interest in walking to eateries on a scale of one to five.

On average, the pedestrian-friendly center neighborhoods reported more walkers than the corridors. But across the two neighborhood types, the proportion of residents with attitudes that favored walking was similar, suggesting that people do not strictly choose their residence based on attitudes about walking.

According to the study, the more shops and restaurants are located near those who enjoy walking, and the more pedestrian-friendly their neighborhood, the more they’ll go about on foot. However, having these incentives has little effect on those with negative attitudes toward walking. Likewise, disincentives to walking, like high crime rates, had a strong influence on those reporting negative walking attitudes. Crime rates had much less effect on those with positive attitudes.

The study concluded that planning scholars need to pursue a multipronged approach to promote walking: improving the built and social environment while also addressing people’s attitudes. How to best do that remains an unanswered question.

Boarnet said it’s unknown whether people’s attitudes toward travel vary over time or in differing contexts, and if so, how. For now, the research suggested that urban planners can retrofit old neighborhoods to get some people on the sidewalk, but further research is needed to understand how to influence those who are not predisposed to walk.

He also said part of the problem in the past has been a lack of communication between disciplines. Public health professionals and urban planners had been “very siloed” up until about a dozen years ago when an active effort was started to bring each of these communities together.

“There’s a community of planners that studies travel behaviors and many public health scholars trying to figure out what makes people engage in exercise or not,” Boarnet said. “The two groups have been increasingly talking over the past several years, but we are still learning how to communicate across boundaries.”