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Google Walkability: A New Tool for Local Planning and Public Health Research? – 2012


This article published by The Journal of Physical Activity and Health addresses two questions: Can free “open source” tools like Google Maps measure walkability for community planners?  Subsequently, which types of measurements (composite or single component) are best in determining walkability for communities? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsored the Study of Employee Quality of Life (SEQOL), which focused on the travel behaviors and physical activity of employees at Atlantic Station, judged by many to be a good example of a walkable, or livable, community. It is a mixed use and transportation oriented development in the center of Atlanta’s Midtown business district.

Key Points

Analyzing how environments shape walkability can be complex. Most analyses measure population density alone, which may not be the best primary indicator of walkability (page 694). In fact, this research determined that “single component” measures were not as accurate in determining walkability as “composite” measures (multiple categories of data) (page 696). The study then examined using Google tools (Google Earth, satellite maps, etc.) as compared to more expensive community planning options for accuracy. Research conducted at Atlantic Station involved 59 employees, who kept travel diaries over four days.

Analyses factored population density, employment density, destinations, intersections, transit stops and sidewalks (page 691).

The article reports that:

  1. The Google open source tools are effective tools for measuring walkability. This means that Google can be used rather than expensive software, saving community planners and local governments money.
  2. Single component analyses for determining walkability are not as accurate as composite analyses. In particular, the article suggests planners focus on proximity and connectivity as relevant factors. “For example, investments to increase connectivity are most advisable where proximity is greatest” (page 696). This impacts where community planners spend and why.

How to Use

Good information is the first step to great planning. By utilizing various factors described in the article in composite analyses, community planners have access to better information. By utilizing free open source tools rather than expensive software tools, community planners can also spend resources more wisely.

View full report: Google Walkability: A New Tool for Local Planning and Public Health Research? – 2012 (PDF – 135 KB)

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