The Relationship Between Neighborhood Environment and Walking Behavior: The Influence of Perceptions
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Perceptions are key to fully understanding walking. Theorists and designers in the urban planning field have long held that people internalize their environment in very complex ways, but these efforts have rarely been translated into empirical travel behavior research. As a result, there is a lack of understanding of how perceptions are shaped by the environment and the contribution of those relationships in the explanation of walking behavior. This study investigates the relationships between residents' perceptions of their neighborhood environment and corresponding objective measures of the same attributes and tests their associations with walking behavior. The methodology includes a cross-sectional, disaggregate research design that incorporates three major categories of data: (1) objective (micro and macro) measures of the environment, (2) residents' perceptions of the environment, and (3) walking behavior. Five areas in Montgomery County, MD are chosen as the study locations because of the variation in social and transportation factors. Six constructs representing major features of the environment (land use/density, pedestrian network, road network, safety from traffic, cleanliness, tree cover) are elaborated in both the objective and perceptual assessments of the environment. Models of perceptions show that objective measures of the environment and socio-demographic measures are generally not good predictors of perceptions. Perceptions have slightly higher explanatory power than objective measures in models of walking behavior. Different measures of the environment are significant from the objective and perceptual angles: only land use and street network are associated with walking both when measured objectively and through perceptions. The other measures are only significant when measured from one perspective: pedestrian network and cleanliness are significantly associated with walking when measured objectively, while tree cover is significant when measured perceptually. The results indicate that the traditional methods of assessing the pedestrian environment with regard to walking might not be the most effective way of capturing environmental variables. They underscore the value of trying to understand the impact of perceptions on the relationship between the built environment and walking, which entails more targeted environmental interventions that can better change and improve walkability.