Price researchers win planning journal’s best paper award for school walkability study

September 25, 2015

By Matthew Kredell

Tridib Banerjee, professor of urban and regional planning

Tridib Banerjee, professor of urban and regional planning

Deepak Bahl, program director of the USC Price Center for Economic Development (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Deepak Bahl, program director of the USC Price Center for Economic Development (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Conventional wisdom on what prevents people from walking in their own neighborhoods holds that the city streets are not attractive, sidewalks are damaged, there aren’t enough open spaces and parks, and the appearance of the built environment isn’t appealing.

USC Price School of Public Policy professor of urban and regional planning Tridib Banerjee and Adjunct Associate Professor Deepak Bahl, along with PhD graduate Jung A Uhm, offered a different perspective in an article for the Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER), leading to them being chosen by the journal’s co-editors for the Chester Rapkin Award as the best paper published in 2014.

Walking to School: The Experience of Children in Inner City Los Angeles and Implications for Policy” illustrated that, at least for kids, impediments to walking are more social in nature than the built environment which had previously dominated the focus of research in the area.

“A lot of funding lately has gone to looking at the role of the built environment in promoting physical activities,” Banerjee said. “I think one of the reasons they gave us the award is the argument we’re making has not been made before in previous literature. Built environment matters to make a city attractive, but the real concern of children is the perception of safety — and as long as that’s not taken care of, other things will not contribute too much to walking behavior.”

Mapping pedestrian paths to, from school

The idea for the paper came from the PhD dissertation of Uhm, who is now a senior regional planner at the Southern California Association of Governments. Funding was received from the METRANS Transportation Center to look at ways to encourage children’s walking from a public health perspective.

The authors interviewed fifth graders from five elementary schools near the USC University Park Campus in L.A., with 90% of the children participating in the study of Hispanic origin. In three classroom sessions over a three-week period, children were asked to locate their school on a map of the neighborhood, draw the route they took to school and back, mark places they liked, disliked or felt unsafe, and discuss their perceptions of walking from home to school.

“The kids were very vocal about their preferences, and it turned out their walkability factor would be much enhanced if policy makers could make sure they had a safer environment,” said Bahl, who is the program director of the USC Price Center for Economic Development. “They would prefer to walk on busy streets with a lot of people than quiet tree-lined streets where they might feel afraid of gang members, the homeless or stray dogs. It’s the social milieu that impacts their walking behavior.”

Where do kids feel safe?

Out of the students surveyed, only 54 percent perceived walking to or from school as safe, citing their top perceived risks of walking as fast-moving cars, many strangers, dogs without a leash, homeless people, graffiti and gangs or bullies.

Parks and playgrounds – planners and policymakers’ most typical responses toward the environmental needs of children – were consistently mentioned as disliked areas, while students favored commercial places on busy streets.

In its assessment of the winning entry, the award selection committee noted: “The paper provides a comprehensive review of the literature and a thorough analysis of an important public policy issue. It combines an extensive survey of inner city students and their parents with GIS-based walkability metrics… The paper’s careful research design and clear presentation provide an outstanding example of policy-oriented research.”