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How walkable is your neighborhood? ASU, cities studying intersections' features

Posted at 4:53 AM, Nov 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-23 11:39:23-05

What greets you when you step out your front door? A paved sidewalk? Any bike lanes? What about street lights? 

Those are the things that make you feel safe walking, jogging or going for a bike ride.

Now, researchers at Arizona State University are using technology to pinpoint the "walkability" outside your door.

"A lot of times we don't necessarily feel safe in an environment. We may not know exactly why," said postdoctoral associate Christy Phillips with the College of Health Solutions.

Researchers have known for a while now that what's around you impacts your activity level. But, ASU said they wanted to find out if and how having safe roads has an impact specifically on health. 

"We have certain features that we look for at crossings," Phillips said. 

With a pen, some papers and a pair of legs, people like Phillips used to have to conduct this type of research the old-fashioned way.

"These audits have been so time and cost-intensive," Phillips described. 

Phillips has a checklist and looks for certain features when approaching an intersection. She looks for micro-features at each spot.

"There are smaller things that can also contribute to either walkability or your ability to ride a bike or just be more active in general," Phillips said. 

She is talking about things like a crosswalk, streetlight, spots for buses and public transportation, etc. 

"What we've had to do in the past in order to assess these micro-scale features is to walk around with a checklist," Phillips said.

But, ASU thought there had to be a better way using technology.

They are developing an automated-system using Google Street view that they are training to virtually detect an intersection's features. 

"It looks at an image and says, 'Okay, I've detected a crosswalk," Phillips explained.

ASU is planning on sharing this information for free in the hope that cities or counties will use it and take action to make sure there are more walkable areas around the state. 

"I would think that many municipalities would be in interested in maybe understanding how different intersections compare," Phillips said. 

This technology is also paired with a five-year study of nearly 500 inactive people. They get financial rewards, daily exercise goals, etc. to encourage them to move.

The next phase of this research is focused on finding out if where they live, and the macro-features they have, will impact how well they stick to staying active. 

"A very effective intervention may lose effectiveness if you live in an environment that doesn't support physical activity," Phillips said.

The research in its entirety will take several more years. But, Phillips said, she hopes to share this data with the Maricopa Association of Governments to get a clearer picture of where there are trouble spots in the state and how to take action to improve them. 

ABC15 reached out to MAG for a comment on this and will update this story with their response when we receive it.