Taking advantage of a glorious fall day in Steamboat Springs, attendees of one session at CPRA’s Annual Meeting in September got out of the classroom to study the science of walking. The results of their exercise help to shed light on how far and how fast people walk in different situations. This may sound trivial, but it’s actually pretty important. Surprisingly little empirical research on walking parameters is found in the realm of scholarly literature, yet walking times and distances factor into the policies of parks and recreation agencies across the state and nation and are even written into law in the planning and zoning regulations of many municipalities. These are based primarily on unproven assumptions, norms, and practices that have been around for a long time. Participants in the session on The Built Environment and Active Living at September’s CPRA meeting tested some of these assumptions in a controlled quasi-experiment.
Breaking into small groups, they fanned out from the base of the Steamboat Gondola and took a walk, carefully recording their routes and marking their final destinations. This information was later entered into a geographic information system (GIS) program for analysis. The results show how much ground they covered as well as how far away from the starting point they ended up on a walk of exactly ten minutes. Their average walking speed was calculated from this data. The results are shown in the following table:
Steamboat Springs Walking Activity Results
From the table we see that on average people taking a ten-minute walk ended up about a quarter mile away as the crow flies from where they started, and travelled a bit over a third of a mile to get there. Their average speed was about 2 1/3 miles per hour.
This is a very small sample with a wide range of values, and needs to be interpreted accordingly. For example, the fastest group travelled almost twice the average speed of the slowest one. But it shows us that when planners make decisions about how far apart to space things like parks and other facilities, they are relying on generalizations and there are many factors to be considered. In this case, participants were walking in a resort with a diverse choice of routes including streets, paths, and wide open ski slopes that allowed for numerous possible short-cuts to be taken. In other environments, the choice of routes may be more limited. Also, the steep terrain in Steamboat may have affected the travel speed of participants, depending on whether they chose to walk uphill or down.
All of this suggests that as we strive to make our communities more healthy and livable by providing walkable destinations and routes to get to them, we need a better understanding of what the true parameters of walking are. We also need to know more about what motivates people to walk and how long and far they will walk in various situations. Thanks to the participants in this session, we know a little bit more than we did before.
A full report on a similar study conducted in Estes Park last summer may be downloaded at:
Robby Layton, FASLA, PLA, CPRP is a Principal at Design Concepts CLA, Inc. and a PhD student at North Carolina State University College of Design, where he is studying the systematic allocation of parks and other greenspaces in the urban environment. He is also a member of the operating board of GP RED, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to the creation of inter-disciplinary, innovative, practical management tools and strategies intended to enhance and promote integration of health, recreation, and land management industries through research, education, and development.