Neighborhood walkability and residential preferences in midsized cities

By Saumya Jain

Many studies have established a significant relationship between walkable neighborhoods and impacts on health and travel behaviors. In the past, most of these studies were based on large metropolitan areas with significant variability in built environment and residential options. A recent study by researchers from University of British Columbia and the Waterloo region examined relationships between residential preferences, neighborhood walkability, and health implications in a Canadian midsized-city. And, the findings are substantially different from those of similar studies done in large metropolitan areas.

Using a sample of 2,597 adults, the researchers found that approximately 65 percent of the respondents lived in the neighborhoods of their preference, i.e., people preferring car-dependent neighborhoods living in low-walkability neighborhoods and vice-versa. The remaining 35 percent were mismatched. Along with describing their travel and neighborhood preferences, socioeconomics, and vehicular kilometers traveled (VKT), as a part of the survey the respondents also weighed their neighborhood preferences through a series of trade-offs.

For individuals who preferred low-walkability neighborhoods, the researchers found that the built environment had little to no effect on travel behavior. According to the researchers, while VKT could be reduced by increasing density and improved accessibility, it would take more than just planning initiatives to change individual preference from automobile to active transportation. The same was concluded for obesity; the researchers did not find a significant association between high walkability neighborhoods and lower levels of obesity. Instead, they suggest that obesity may partly shape neighborhood preferences, and interventions might require more than planning strategies. Through the trade-off assessment, the researchers found that even individuals who preferred living in walkable neighborhoods were reluctant to completely sacrifice low-density living environments in exchange for “livability,” but would prefer added active transportation infrastructure.

The key findings and conclusions from the study may be useful for planners and designers working with mid-sized cities and suburban towns. In the paper, the researchers also translated their findings into possible planning and policy implications, mainly suggesting moderate changes to the built environment and a greater focus on matching residential preferences for achieving successful planning outcomes.

Saumya Jain is a Senior Associate at SSTI.