It’s been said that if you build it, they will come. If you design a program that promotes daily walks, will they choose to walk more? To help measure the effects on walking behavior and attitudes of a program aimed to promote walking, Mobility Lab provided research assistance to WalkArlington, Arlington County’s walking education and encouragement program, to help evaluate the 8-Week Walking Challenge.
Arlington County data on walking
As it is, Arlington County records a high level of walk trips relative to the region. In Arlington County, around one in five trips are made by walking (21.3%), according to the preliminary results on the latest data released by MWCOG for the 2017-2018 Regional Travel Survey. Using the same data to further examine walking trips, trips made by walking comprise a higher share of non-work weekday trips (25.1%) compared to work trips made on weekdays (8.0%).
There is reason to believe that there is potential to increase efforts in promoting walking as a transportation choice, not just for commute trips to work. Only 4% of Arlington residents walk as their primary commute mode, based on findings from the 2019 State of Commute Arlington Analysis report. When placed in the context of distance of home to work location, this aligns with the report’s findings of 3% of Arlington residents reported living less than one mile from work location, which is approximately the average commute walking distance (0.9 miles).
The 8-Week Walking Challenge
Participants of the 8-Week Walking Challenge were provided resources to generate commitment and support their pledge to walk 30 minutes a day. According to WalkArlington, the 8-Week Walking Challenge was designed with three goals: for participants to walk 30 minutes every day, for participants to increase their knowledge and confidence in how to walk for common trip types (e.g., to transit, to the grocery store), and to improve their attitude toward walking. For WalkArlington, it was hoped that “this new habit of walking will inspire them to replace more car trips with walking after program completion.”
According to WalkArlington, they collaborated with marketing and programmatic teams to create a campaign that would delight, engage, provide accountability, and incorporate tested behavior-change strategies. These behavior-change strategies were exemplified through the resources provided to participants, which included a weekly email campaign, digital resources, and personalized connections. These provided the nudges and accountability reminders to the participants who pledged to walk 30 minutes a day for eight weeks.
Research studies about walking
The benefits of walking are numerous, as documented in multiple studies exploring its links to health, well-being, and the environment. For example, in a study published in 2020, researchers distinguished the health benefits of walking based on trip purpose and explored linkages between walking for home-based work trips and higher self-reported health outcome score, as well as faster walking speeds for those who walk for home-based work trips.
Aside from personal preferences and attitudes, there are examples in academic literature that studied the impact of external factors such as the built-in environment and level of walkability, on walking behavior. One example of recent research about how the built environment impacts walking is a study published in 2020 that explored the relationship between built environment (i.e., street connectivity, number of bus stops, number of bike-sharing stations and distance to public spaces like parks and squares) and time spent walking of older adults in the area.
In the 2017 Barriers to Biking and Walking report by Mobility Lab, peer behavior and short commuting distance were the two main factors that encourage and motivate participants to walk and bike. As discussed in the report, being accountable to a partner or a step campaign serves as motivation to walk, whether as a form of leisure or as part of their work commute. Short commuting distance, such as for trips to the grocery store, also encouraged walking and biking.
Collecting data for the 8-Week Walking Challenge
The first 8-Week Walking Challenge was conducted by WalkArlington from October to December 2020. Upon the return of more favorable weather conditions, the second 8-Week Walking Challenge was conducted from April to June 2021.
For each run of the challenge, data was collected through two surveys: a pre-program survey and a post-program survey. The pre-program survey was distributed at sign-up to participants, while the post-program program survey was distributed to participants at the end of the program. The two surveys were administered in this manner to allow for any possible comparisons of general sentiments relating to walking behavior and attitudes before and after the challenges, with the intention of capturing the impact of the 8-Week Challenge on walking behavior and attitudes of the participants.
The surveys were designed to collect information on travel behavior (i.e., travel modes regularly used for commute and leisure travel), walking behavior (i.e., average number of minutes walked per day), walking attitudes (i.e., perceived benefits and barriers to walking), as well as information to help improve the program like satisfaction ratings, motivations for participating, and demographic information.
Data collected from the surveys was anonymized and aggregated to facilitate further analysis. As such, any changes observed are based broadly on comparisons made using aggregated data from the pre-survey and the post-survey. Moreover, since this is a convenience sample, results are unique to the small sample size of survey respondents, limited to those who participated in the study. Hence, some self-selection bias may be evident in the findings since people who participate in a walking challenge program promoted through WalkArlington’s communication channels may already have favorable attitudes to walking and are more inclined to walk regularly. The research team also observed attrition between the pre-program and post-program surveys?
Interesting findings from the 8-Week Walking Challenge
Below are a few interesting insights from the first 8-Week Walking Challenge:
- Reduction in driving alone commute trips. Walking moved up from third to second most popular mode reported for commute trips after the program (22% of pre-program respondents vs. 28% of post-program respondents reported walking as a mode regularly used for traveling to work/school). Driving alone to work/school decreased from 54% to 48%.
- Increase in choosing walking for non-commute trips. Survey respondents who report regularly walking for non-commute trips changed from 52% pre-program to 76% post-program. Driving alone decreased for non-commute trips from 77% to 69%.
- Walking rose in popularity for errands. Activity for which walking is the preferred mode rose from 49% in pre-program to 76% post-program for “errands” which represents a huge jump in a preference for walking.
- Perceived barriers to walking decreased. The top two perceived barriers to walking remained the same pre-program and post-program, but the magnitude of responses decreased. For example, 63% of pre-program respondents saying “it is easier to take other transportation” compared to only 35% of post-program respondents. 62% of pre-program respondents reported “I find it difficult to make time for ” compared to 43% of post-program respondents.
- Health benefits of walking is a top motivation. The two most frequently cited motivations for joining were related to health: 88% of pre-program survey respondents joined to increase physical activity, and 70% joined to improve mental health.
The findings from Mobility Lab’s analysis of the data collected for the second 8-Week Walking Challenge echoed most of the insights from the first run of the challenge: participants listed health benefits as the top motivation for joining, walking rose in popularity for errands, and increase in choosing walking for non-commute trips. The effects on drive alone commute trips and walking barriers were more muted for the second 8-Week Walking Challenge. For the second 8-Week Walking Challenge, majority of the survey respondents were first time participants; only 18% were repeat participants who completed the previous challenge, and 6% were those who signed up but did not complete the previous challenge.
Counting on the next steps
The joint efforts of Mobility Lab and WalkArlington in measuring the effects of the 8-Week Walking Challenge illustrates continuing efforts to quantify the outcome of a program as it aligns with its intended objectives. The results from analyzing the surveys conducted for the 8-Week Walking Challenge may help provide transportation demand management practitioners with interesting insights about enacting behavior change through programs that encourage choosing transportation options beyond driving.
Additional information provided by WalkArlington.