Walkability perception_understanding sociodemographic correlates of perception

Bernasconi, Claudia, and Alan Hoback

Increased dependency on vehicular transportation has given rise to a wide range of issues in the domain of social interaction and human health, affecting whole communities in the great majority of American towns and suburban areas. Cities do not always provide inhabitants with adequate pedestrian facilities, or adequate pedestrian links to local attractions and businesses. The acknowledgement of a general low quality level of the walking environment has led to increased research in this field. The linkages between physical environment and walking habits have been investigated from a variety of perspectives for several decades (e.g. Cullen, 1969, Lynch, 1960, Kaplan, 1985; Furin, J. 1971). The abundant research in the planning, design, behavioral and health fields, confirms the crucial role of pedestrian transportation research in contemporary automobile dependent societies. Extensive research has been conducted striving toward the definition of levels of service (LOS) of pedestrian facilities (e.g. Gallin, N. 2001; Landis, et al., 2001), with primary focus on safety assessment. Fewer research had been directed towards the understanding of the walking environment as a comprehensive space constructed by a variety of interrelated factors, which go beyond safety, security and continuity of the paved sidewalk (e.g. Reid, 2008; Sarkar, 1993; Spooner, 2007). Most recent research has emphasized a connection between health factors and planning considerations through the employment of interdisciplinary approaches (e.g. Chanam and Moudon, 2004; Saelens, et al., 2003).

This study investigated public perception of walkability (i.e. the ability of the environment to promote walking) in a street environment in Detroit, Michigan, utilizing visual evaluation techniques in order to establish correlations between perceptions of the general public, socio-demographic characteristics of respondents, and characteristics of the street environment. To accomplish this goal, we asked the public to fill out a questionnaire and to rate pictures portraying existing urban scenes through a five-category descriptor of walkability (i.e. orientation, comfort, aesthetics, safety and security).  We employed landscape evaluation techniques shifting the target from the natural landscape to the urban landscape. More specifically objectives of this investigation were to: 1) understand public perception of walkability for urban scenes along a main transportation corridor, 2) assess scene attributes (environmental design attributes and picture attributes) that have significant relationship with public perception of walkability, 3) assess significant relationships between respondents’ characteristics and perception of walkability, and 4) offer suggestions for future planning of walking environments.

Results provide valuable insights on walkability perception. Though we were not able to assess dependency of walkability perception on specific environmental elements, we were able to successfully detected dependency of perception on characteristics of respondents’. Familiarity and education levels emerged as significant factors, while age, number of walking trips and walkability ease did not determine significant effects. Our findings also indicate that both site familiarity and walking ease affect ranking of five walkability characteristics.

The results from this analysis can help identify future design considerations for comparable urban environments and advance research in this field. Further research is needed and potentially innovative survey administration techniques in order to overcome study limitations.