Evidence

Evidence supporting the health benefits of Movement Networks 

Authors: Dr Jerome Rachele, Julianna Rozek, Dr Karen Villanueva, Dr Lucy Gunn, Professor Billie Giles-Corti.

Good movement networks allow people to travel safely and conveniently between home, work, school and other important destinations within and between neighbourhoods.

Scope of Evidence

Studies of movement networks and physical activity find a range of features that impact on the ‘walkability’ of neighbourhoods, and can encourage walking and cycling. The evidence in this review is predominantly from urban and suburban areas within the UK, USA and Australia.

In this section, you will learn more about: 

See a summary of the above evidence

Connectivity 

Street connectivity has received considerable attention in the transportation and physical activity research fields. There is strong and consistent evidence that connected street networks promote walking for transport in all age groups  [10, 12-18, 28-30]  and promote recreational walking in adults and older adults. The link between connectivity and general walking in children and adolescents is inconsistent.  

Connectivity is achieved and measured through a number of urban form features, including:  

  • Intersection density (i.e., the number of intersections per unit area) 
  • Percentage of intersections with three or more ways (i.e., T-junctions)  
  • Block length or size (i.e. block perimeter) 
  • Block density (i.e., the number of blocks per unit area).  [4]   

Street network design 

Traditionally designed neighbourhoods with a grid-style road layout have higher street connectivity than conventional curvilinear streets and cul-de-sac layouts.  [31] Grid-style layouts have few barriers to direct travel such as dead ends and major intersecting roads. This creates highly connected street networks with lots of routes for pedestrians to choose from. In contrast, neighbourhoods developed around hierarchical networks - large, high speed roads feeding into curvilinear roads and terminating in cul-de-sacs - have low connectivity. Walking is discouraged by the longer distances between destinations and fewer pedestrian route choices.  [4] Indeed, a 2001 study by Randall and Baetz  [32] measured pedestrian connectivity in grid versus cul-de-sac layouts and estimated that walking distances were up to 40% longer in isolated cul-de-sac layouts.  

However, neighbourhoods with streets that contain no-through routes for motor vehicles, such as those with cul-de-sacs, provide opportunities for children to play on low-traffic streets.  [18] Movement networks in residential areas need to strike a balance between providing direct routes for pedestrians and cyclists, and managing traffic to provide a safe environment for children and young people to play. Where cul-de-sacs are installed, consideration of their length and the provision of linking routes to maintain the connectivity of the street network for pedestrians and cyclist is essential.   

Recent research has explored visual connectivity - the number of turns a pedestrian must take to see the same number of destinations - as distinct from physical connectivity. Both aspects of connectivity were associated with greater pedestrian volumes, and should be considered when creating pedestrian-friendly environments.  [55]  

The size or length of blocks is sometimes used as proxy measures for street connectivity.  [33] This is based on the premise that smaller or shorter blocks create a denser network of streets, reduce walking distances, increase the number of intersections, and create more route choices between locations.  [4, 19, 84] Smaller block sizes are also associated with smaller lots and hence, increased density.   

Pedestrian Infrastructure 

Pedestrian infrastructure are urban design features that provide amenity, or affect pedestrian mobility, safety and comfort. People are more likely to walk in pedestrian-friendly environments where they feel comfortable.  [85, 86] Features that contribute towards the physical qualities and aesthetics of the street environment and are relevant to walking include  [87]:  

  • Footpath surface and condition as considered in the ‘Footpath’ section 
  • Curb height 
  • Street furniture 
  • Lighting 
  • Street trees and other vegetation 
  • Building setbacks 
  • Visual attractiveness and interest of an area 
  • Cleanliness of the street  

There is strong evidence that the aesthetic presentation of streets promotes active transport and recreational walking, particularly for adults and older adults.  [10, 30, 37, 38, 54, 56, 66, 88-94] Infrastructure that can encourage people to walk by making the experience more attractive, convenient, functional, comfortable and safe includes  [10, 54]:  

  • Seating 
  • Signage  
  • Lighting 
  • Shade and planting  
  • Dog-walking facilities 
  • Drinking fountains  

Pedestrian-friendly infrastructure may be especially important for older adults. Providing sheltered seating may encourage older adults to walk to local services, and maintain social interaction and community connections.  [10, 54] 

The presence of pedestrian infrastructure provides a place for people to meet and linger rather than just a place to move through.  [21] Diverse street frontages and facades, especially at first and second-floor levels, create visually interesting streetscapes that prompt people to linger and make streets livelier.  [17, 21, 54] Streetscapes that contain footpaths, street furniture, artwork and shade (particularly from trees) encourage people onto the streets and provides an amenable space for interaction.  [10] A study in Mexican school children found that fewer path obstructions and more pedestrian amenities were associated with more outdoor play.  [61] San Francisco's ‘Pavement to Parks’ projects reclaim wasted or underutilised spaces along the roadways, creating plazas and seating areas by painting or treating the asphalt, placing protective barriers along the periphery, and installing moveable tables and chairs.  [95]  

However, it has been suggested that street furniture and infrastructure on footpaths such as café seating areas and external shop displays, can create barriers and discourage walking.  [96] 

Street trees 

Trees within cities provide a multitude of environmental, economic, social, and health and wellbeing benefits.  [89] One benefit particularly relevant for pedestrians is thermal comfort. Trees have a cooling effect through evapotranspiration and shading, which reduces the urban heat island effect on the broad scale.  

At street-level, the tree canopy provides shade, enhancing walkability, improving the aesthetics of neighbourhoods and creating a more pleasant environment.  [68-70, 89] The temperature under tree canopies is 5-15°C cooler than on streets without trees, improving the thermal comfort and air quality for pedestrians.  [97] Street trees are therefore particularly important in areas with hot climates, such as Perth, WA, and will be increasingly important as climate change leads to warmer temperatures in many Australian cities.  [98] 

Street trees on routes to school encourage children to walk to school  [38, 74] and promote walking and cycling in adolescents and adults.  [30] Only a small number of studies have explored the independent role of street trees in promoting physical activity, and to some extent this has been examined as a component of aesthetics.  [37] Street trees also increase pedestrian and cyclist safety and perceptions of safety by slowing traffic speeds, and providing a physical and psychological buffer between the sidewalk and traffic.  [68, 70, 89] 

Safety 

Neighbourhood crime levels and perceptions of safety are influenced by a range of personal, social and built environment factors, and affect how likely people are to walk. Built environment attributes that promote visibility and natural surveillance, or reflect social control and place attachment, have well documented associations with feeling safe.  

Some Crime Prevention Through Design (CPTED) elements such as good street lighting, neighbourhood upkeep, and less physical incivilities (e.g. litter, graffiti and vandalism) and street features that promote safety from crime (e.g., front porches and neighbourhood maintenance) can encourage walking.  [72, 73, 99]  

The presence of physical incivilities is associated with lower physical activity levels for children, adults and older adults.  [66] This association is observed more often in older adults, who tend to feel more vulnerable to crime.  [72, 73, 100-103] Good street lighting makes walking and cycling routes feel safe and comfortable at night. Evidence suggests that well-lit streets encourages adolescents’ physical activity, adults’ active transport and physical activity, and older adults’ physical activity.  [43, 104-107] 

Footpaths 

The footpath network facilitates walking to schools, activity centres, public transport and other important destinations. A supportive footpath network is cohesive and integrated with cycling and public transport networks, connects areas within neighbourhoods, and provides links to other neighbourhoods and regions.  [29, 40, 46, 55] 

Footpath presence 

There is consistent evidence that the presence of footpaths is associated with active transport across all age groups.  [13, 14, 23, 33-38, 40, 41, 108] Footpaths also support recreational and general walking in adolescents, adults and older adults.  [12, 23, 41-43, 109] Additionally, when footpath continuity has been included as one of the criteria for determining the walkability of an area, high walkable neighbourhoods had higher rates of walking.  [1] 

A study in Perth, WA concluded that installing more footpaths might increase the proportion of people initiating transportation-related walking, and the time they spent walking.  [36] This effect was independent of other neighbourhood environment characteristics (i.e., connectivity, land use mix, and residential density) and personal preferences for particular neighbourhood attributes.  

However, the installation of footpaths must be combined with other interventions designed to encourage people to initiate and spend more time walking such as local destinations.  [36] Studies by Gunn et al. (2014) and Veerman et al. (2016) have found that installing footpaths on both sides of the street was not a cost-effective strategy for increasing walking. They conclude that to improve the cost-effectiveness of footpaths, the density of dwellings in an area should be increased.  [110, 111] 

Footpath quality 

The quality of footpaths is also important. Cleaner, well-maintained footpaths promote children’s, adults’ and older adults’ active transport, and adults’ recreational walking.  [37, 66, 82, 88, 104] This may be particularly relevant for older adults who are at greater risk of falls.  [112] Footpath features that may dissuade walking include:  

  • Litter  
  • Overgrown or dead grass in nature-strips 
  • Cracked, uneven or broken pavement  

Pedestrian infrastructure, such as street furniture, lighting and trees, can also encourage walking by making it attractive, convenient, functional, comfortable and safe.  [54] These are considered in the Pedestrian Infrastructure section above. 

Cycling networks 

There is a growing body of evidence linking built environment features to rates of cycling. Features that have a positive effect include: 

  • Greater population density  [47, 50]  
  • High network connectivity  [47, 51, 113] 
  • High land use diversity and destination accessibility  [2, 45-47, 50, 51]  
  • Bike lanes  [44, 48, 50]  
  • Off-road paths  [45, 46, 51]  
  • Traffic safety such as low vehicle volumes and speeds  [46, 113]  
  • Closeness to the central business district  [45, 50] 
  • Bike share stations  [44] 
  • End of trip facilities such as showers, and undercover and secure parking  [40, 114] 

Cycling policies 

Cycling can be encouraged by providing good infrastructure, programs and policies.  [3, 115] This includes separating bicyclists from motorists with on-street markings, bike lanes painted on the road surface, and signage. Physical barriers or buffers increases riders’ confidence for cycling and may be appropriate, for example on busier roads. Notably, the evidence suggests that women and older adults prefer greater separation from vehicular traffic.  [116] 

The Western Australian Bicycle Network Plan (WABN) 2014-2031 is an example of comprehensive cycling policy, which aims to double cycling in WA within five years . Local governments are required to complete and maintain local bicycle plans as part of their town planning schemes. These must link with neighbouring local authorities, integrate with rail and bus stations, and connect to schools and other important destinations.  [117] All developments within the local area are expected to contribute towards the installation of these routes to ensure continuity of access within the neighbourhood and wider network. 

Measuring bikeability 

Bikeability is a measurement of how good a network is for cycling, and is important for benchmarking, measuring changes, and identifying areas for improvement. Bike Score is one tool associated with urban bikeability and cycling behaviour in 24 US and Canadian cities.  [118] Bike Score is comprised of three environmental components: 

  • Bike Lane Score  
  • Hill Score 
  • Destinations and Connectivity Score 

It includes painted bicycle lanes, off-street trails, cycle tracks and residential bikeways, and excludes sharrows (shared lane markings). The score also weights separated facilities twice as much as on-street facilities, and favours proximity to destinations.  [118] 

Public transport 

A good public transport system promotes healthy lifestyles by encouraging people to walk. Studies have found a positive relationship between the presence and density of public transport stops and walking across all age groups.  [79, 119, 120] 

A US study found that 29% of people who used public transport achieved the recommended 30 minutes or more of daily physical activity solely by walking to and from public transport.  [121] Low-income, minority groups and people in high-density urban areas were more likely to walk for 30 minutes or more. People who commute by public transport also walk more, and are more likely to reach the minimum recommended 10,000 steps per day than car commuters.  [122, 123] 

Increasing access to public transport may help physically inactive populations achieve daily recommended exercise targets. Installing a new light rail station increased walking and physical activity in people who were previously more sedentary.  [124] People living in (or closer to) Transit-Oriented Developments are more likely to use public transport and walk, and less likely to drive.  [59] 

Living close to bus stops and rail stations is positively associated with active transport and walking for adults and older adults.  [10, 16, 35, 52, 119, 125, 126] This association is stronger when there are stations close to both the home and workplace.  [53] Children living near public transport are more likely to walk or cycle to school.  [58]  

Providing access to public transport has wider societal, economic and environmental co-benefits.  [127] For example, providing frequent and accessible public transport is an important strategy to reduce inequities and prevents the marginalisation of vulnerable groups. It enables people with restricted mobility, including young people, older adults, low-income earners and people with disabilities, to access services and prevents social exclusion.  [128, 129] 

The location and design of public transport stops affects how likely they are to be used. Stops located in areas with well-connected gridded streets and higher walkability are more heavily used than those in areas with less well-connected streets.  [57, 69] The design of stops should provide shelter and seating or places to lean. This is crucial to make public transport accessible for users who have difficulty standing for extended periods, such as the elderly.  [128] Providing shade is particularly important in hot climates, such as in Australia.  

Motor vehicles 

People are discouraged from walking and cycling if the road traffic on routes is heavy and perceived to be unsafe. The provision and design of car parking also affects whether people drive to a destination. 

Traffic volume 

For children and adolescents, living in neighbourhoods with heavy traffic volumes is associated with lower levels of physical activity, and walking and cycling for transport.  [25, 79, 130-133] Providing suitable road crossings, safer traffic conditions  [40, 89, 134] and traffic-calming measures such as traffic lights and speed bumps can encourage physical activity and active transport.  [13, 25-27] Lower traffic volumes and traffic-calming measures also encourage walking and cycling in adults and older adults.  [10, 89, 96, 134] 

Connected road networks are associated with more walking in older adults and children, but only when traffic-related issues are managed, and the local streets are perceived to be safe.  [20] Real and perceived traffic-related safety has been associated with walking for transport in children  [1, 21, 22] and older adults.  [20, 23] Furthermore, in areas with high street connectivity, but high traffic volumes, children are less likely to walk to school than in other areas (that is, there is an interaction between connectivity and traffic).  [24] While traffic lights and signals increase safety, poorly coordinated signalling cycles that lead to long waiting times to cross can be a deterrent to walking.  [96] 

The connection between traffic speed and risk of injury to pedestrians and cyclists is undisputed.  [68] As speed increases, crashes are more likely and more severe. This applies to all road users, but pedestrians and cyclists are particularly vulnerable.  [70] Lowering traffic speeds can reduce injuries and increase walking and cycling rates.  [68] 

Car parking 

The provision, location and design of car parks affects how likely people are to drive to a destination rather than walk, cycle or use public transport. Abundant parking discourages people from using other forms of transport.  [69]   

Big-box retail shopping centres with large car parks, long distances between shops, poor walking and cycling infrastructure, and poor connections to public transport encourage people to drive - even if they live within a close and comfortable walking distance.  [135] In contrast, more traditional, main-street centres, with pedestrian-scaled, street-fronting mixed-use buildings with small setbacks and ‘active’ ground floor uses that extend onto the street- encourage walking and cycling.  

Routes to school 

Providing good walking and cycling routes around schools encourages children to walk and cycle, and has a positive effect on their mental and physical health. The two most important factors are distance to school and features of the built environment- including pedestrian infrastructure, traffic and perceptions of safety.  [24]

Distance to school 

There is consistent and strong evidence that children and adolescents who live closer to school are more likely to walk or cycle.  [26, 27, 58, 62, 63, 65, 67, 71, 74-79, 81, 130, 131, 136-140]  

Australian children aged 5-6 years are five times more likely to walk or cycle if the route to school is less than 800 metres.  [64, 79] The effect is even stronger in children aged 10-12 years, who are over ten times more likely to walk or cycle using the same threshold. A study of NSW children found they were half as likely to walk or cycle to school if the route distance increased from 750 metres to 1.5 kilometres.  [27] Another Australian study found the cycling threshold for children aged 10-12 is 1.67 kilometres.  [141] 

Evidence suggests that European children are willing to walk or cycle further. A study of Belgian children aged 11-12 also concluded that distance from school was the greatest factor in determining whether a child would walk or cycle, however the distance thresholds were longer.  [142] Just over 86% of children who walked to school lived within 1.5 kilometres, and most of these lived within 500 metres. For cycling, the threshold was 3 kilometres. Another study of Belgian adolescents aged 17-18 found even longer walking and cycling thresholds of 2 kilometres and 8 kilometres, respectively.  [143] 

Shortening the distance to schools by putting in shortcuts can increase the likelihood children will walk or cycle to school. This is true even in neighbourhoods with low population density and street connectivity, which typically discourages active transport.  [131, 144] 

Safety and walkability 

The objective and perceived features of the neighbourhood surrounding schools and the features of the routes to school (i.e., its connectivity, road safety and the amount of traffic) affect whether children walk and cycle to school. Reducing traffic in and around schools  [130, 131], and improving the safety of footpaths and crossings are strategies consistently found to encourage active travel.  [40, 145] 

A 2011 study by Giles-Corti and colleagues in Perth WA, found that children attending schools in areas with high street connectivity and low traffic were more than three times likely to walk to school as children attending schools in areas with high street connectivity and high traffic.  [24] Better connected street networks also support navigation choices and walking behaviour in 12-14 year-olds.  [146] 

An evaluation of a Safe Routes to School program in the US found that children who passed through areas with footpaths and/or traffic control measures are more likely to walk or cycle to school.  [82] The presence of footpaths can also influence perceptions of walking safety, and influence mode choice.  [147, 148] 

Parents have a strong impact on how their children travel to school. If parents perceive a school route as less safe - including the neighbourhood in general, and the safety of a child walking alone - their children are less likely to regularly walk or cycle to school.  [14, 22] Parental concerns about traffic safety and characteristics of the street network en-route to school also affect their children’s active travel.  [64]  

Children whose parents reported a lack of lights or crossings in the neighbourhood, and who had to cross busy roads to get to school, were less likely to actively travel to school.  [79] If parents perceive that streets lacked footpaths or had obstructions, this also influenced their concerns about children walking to school alone.  [147] 

Australian boys whose parents perceived the school route to have low traffic and high connectivity were more likely to walk to and from school.  [81] More broadly, adolescent boys whose parents report that traffic made it difficult or unpleasant to walk in their neighbourhood were less likely to report walking or cycling in the neighbourhood.  [83] 

The perceptions of children themselves are also important - adolescent girls who perceived their neighbourhood roads as safe were more likely to walk for transport in general.  [83] Adolescents were less likely to walk to school if they perceived their route to school as poorly lit, and reported encountering parked cars that obscure visibility and intersections that lacked signals.  [149] Cycling to school was positively associated with perceptions of low and safe traffic, safe neighbourhood or route to school and high walkability.  [80] 

These findings highlight the importance of carefully considering the location of schools in terms of the surrounding street networks, traffic volumes and access to public transport.  [58].  

Walking promotion programs 

Walking promotion programs can be a successful strategy for promoting active travel to school.  [131] 

The “walking school bus” is a popular program offered by schools to encourage walking that helps address parental safety concerns. School children are chaperoned by two adults (a "driver" leads and a "conductor" follows) on the walk to school from designated "bus stops" and "pick up times". Walking school buses have been shown to increase children’s active commuting and physical activity.  [150-152]  

Summary of evidence 

Connected street networks facilitate walking for transport in all age groups.  [12-19]
Real and perceived traffic-related safety is associated with walking for transport in children and older adults. Connected road networks are associated with more walking in older adults and children, but only when traffic-related issues are managed and the local streets are perceived to be safe.  [1, 10, 13, 19-30]
Curvilinear streets and cul-de-sac layouts with no connecting links decrease pedestrian route choices, increase the walking distances between destinations and discourage walking.   [4, 19, 31, 32]
Residential streets and cul-de-sacs provide a setting for informal games and opportunities for young people to play on low-traffic streets.  [18]
The presence of footpaths is consistently associated with active transport across all age groups.   [13, 14, 23, 33-40]
The presence of footpaths encourages recreational walking in adolescents and older adults, and is strongly associated with recreational and general walking in adults.  [12, 23, 41-43] 
A number of infrastructure, programs and policies have been shown to increase cycling. These include on-street markings and cycle lanes, bike share stations, separate cycle ways, improved traffic safety, land use diversity and destination accessibility, undercover and secure bike storage, and end-of –trip shower facilities.  [32, 33, 36, 40, 44-51] 
An increased supply of car parking may result in reduced active transport and public transport use.  [52, 53] 
Proximity to bus stops and rail stations is associated with active transport and walking for adults and older adults.  [9, 10, 19, 21, 28, 29, 38, 52-59] 
Public transport stops that provide shade, shelter and seating or places to lean make public transport more accessible for users who have difficulty standing for extended periods, such as the elderly.   [10, 60, 61] 
Streets perceived to be aesthetically pleasing promote active transport and recreational walking, particularly for adults and older adults.   [10, 30, 38, 44, 54, 56, 62-67] 
Street trees encourage walking, and provide a multitude of environmental, economic, social, and health and wellbeing benefits.  [30, 38, 68-71].  
Crime Prevention Through Design (CPTED) elements such as good street lighting, neighbourhood upkeep, and less physical incivilities (e.g. litter, graffiti and vandalism) and street features that promote safety from crime (e.g., front porches and neighbourhood maintenance) can encourage walking.    [72, 73] 
Children and adolescents who live closer to school are more likely to walk or cycle to school. Distance thresholds vary by age of the child.  [26, 27, 71, 74-79] 
The objective and perceived features of the neighbourhood surrounding schools and the features of the routes to school (i.e., street connectivity, road safety and the amount of traffic) affect whether children walk or cycle to school.  [22, 24, 80-83]