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NCHPAD - Building Healthy Inclusive Communities

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What You Need To Know


By: Chris Mackey

More and more communities across the country are seeing walkability as an asset to promote the health of their residents and enhance economic vitality, but how do you know if your neighborhood or other part of your community is walkable?  You’ll have to conduct a Walkability Assessment (also called an audit or survey).  This is an unbiased assessment of a walking and biking environment in a particular area.  Assessments can be conducted by any group of concerned community members, but it of course makes sense for those conducting any walkability review to be representative of the community.  Remember too though that anyone of any ability level can have the potential to use the walking environment, so it’s a good idea to involve people with disabilities and/or disability organizations.  In addition, local leaders, municipal planners, school officials, or members of the business community could all serve as allies in any movement to increase walkability and therefore can play a role in assessments.

Preparing for a Walkability Assessment

Preparation for a walkability assessment generally is a fairly straightforward process.  In general, you want to take the following steps:

•    Map out the areas of your community that you want to survey and distribute them to participants.  You can use a mapping app to do this.
•    Make sure your assessment team is familiar with the survey you’ll be using.
•    Have maps of the walking route, clipboards, and pens/pencils for everyone.
•    Have a digital level and measuring tapes to check the widths of sidewalks and slopes where the accessibility might be in question.

Choosing a Walkability Assessment Tool

Walkability is such a hot topic in public health, community planning, and other fields today that many different organizations have created their own assessment checklists.  Some require measurement (e.g. measurement of accessibility features) and are very technical in nature while others are not.  There are checklists that focus on specific environment, such as worksites, assessments that are meant to address accessibility features for pedestrians with disabilities.  Some disability organizations, such as Centers for Independent Living, have staff members who are well-versed in the more technical side of accessibility (e.g. what makes a curb ramp compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act).  It still may be helpful to have team members be familiar with documents that illustrate accessibility such as these from the Americans with Disabilities Act web site:

As mentioned above, the number of tools that measure walkability—or some aspect of it—are numerous.  These are just a few resources:

  • NCHPAD’s Community Health Inclusion Index On-Site Survey examines a few elements related to walkability around a specific site.  As the name implies, it is intended to measure the level of inclusion (not just access) in health promotion programs and policies in a community.  Only some of the questions deal with pedestrian rights-of-way but they are relatively simple.  It will help identify issues that might need further examination.
  • Sidewalks and Streets Survey from AARP covers many issues related to accessibility with a number of questions designed to collect more qualitative data.  It is linked to an online guide that provides you direction on what to do after you conduct your survey.  Some of that information is addressed in this article.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created the Worksite Audit Tool that examines walkability around a worksite.
  • The Bicycle Pedestrian Information Center has a number of survey tools linked to its website, some of which address issues such as bus stop accessibility and Universal Design.

Selected Elements of Walkability Related to Pedestrians with Disabilities

  • Width of sidewalks ideally should be five feet, which allows someone who uses a wheelchair to walk next to a companion.
  • Frequent changes in direction can make it difficult for some individuals with vision loss.
  • Cross slopes, or slopes that run parallel to the path of travel (make the pathway tilt left or right), can be difficult for those using assistive devices such as wheelchairs
  • Crossing signals should provide visual and audible indicators for those with vision and hearing loss.
  • Transitions such as curb ramps should have tactile.
  • Do walkers, especially those using assistive devices, have enough time to cross streets or do they feel rushed?
  • Make sure curb ramps are present at crossings and they have detectable warnings, which are the bumps, called truncated domes that you see on the pavement.
  • How easy is it to find your way from one point to another?  Are there significant landmarks that let you know where you are?  Does signage convey direction in more than one way?

Everyone Can Play a Role

Any member of a walkability assessment team can contribute.  Of course you’ll need people who can take measurements and record results, but some may be able to offer input in different ways.  It’s always a good idea to have someone bring a camera to photograph issues brought up while using the survey tool.  It may also be helpful to just have team members take pictures of things they find meaningful to their experience.   Of course, walkability assessments don’t end after you conduct the survey.  Who needs to know the data you’ve collected?  Who are those individuals in the community that can create the changes you need?  What actions need to be taken and how long will they take?  Depending on your results, some actions may take longer than others. 

  • Call your public works department about broken lights along the route.
  • If litter was the problem, organize a clean-up with community members.  This could be a springboard to future discussions to address longer term issues.
  • Present your results to a local healthy community coalition and work with them to develop a campaign or petition for improved crossings.
  • Having the backing of healthy community coalitions can be critical for longer term efforts such as developing a Complete Streets Policy for your community.
  • Encourage residents who live along the route to report any cars illegally parked on pedestrian sidewalks.

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