Research Activities

WalkBoston has undertaken several research projects that directly address some of the questions we have encountered during our advocacy activities or during programs that we have carried out to encourage walking. Each research project has resulted in the development of new tools or techniques that are designed to improve our work, and that we have shared with other practitioners through presentations at conferences. Our primary research projects focused on identifying tools to enhance public participation in transit planning by under-represented populations and tools to identify schools with significant opportunities for shifting from school drop-off to walking or biking to school.

Safe Routes to School

Targeting Safe Routes to School Programs. Thousands of schools across the country have adopted programs encouraging students and their parents to choose walking, biking, and other non-auto modes for commutes to and from school. These Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs generally seek to achieve a variety of objectives: health benefits of active transportation for students; air quality improvements; reduced congestion; and reduced public school transportation costs. There is growing interest in the potential for SRTS programs to reduce auto vehicle miles travelled (VMTs) and associated Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs), either directly through school commute mode choice or indirectly through reduced auto trips and modified trip-chaining. A commonly cited statistic suggests that auto school commutes account for 10% - 14% of all vehicles on the road during morning peak periods. This figure undoubtedly varies widely, and is not equivalent to miles driven or pounds of exhaust, but it does suggest that getting more kids to walk or bike to school might also measurably reduce emissions.

Previous research demonstrates that travel distance has the single greatest effect on student travel mode; only students within some reasonable distance can be expected to walk. Meanwhile, the mode choice of those living further from school will be largely unaffected by an SRTS program. At any given school, three factors determine how many students could reasonably walk or bike to school: whether the school is located near a large number of school-age children; whether school district policies assign those children to school based on proximity; and whether pedestrian infrastructure exists connecting children to the school. Other factors, such as parental attitudes, traffic management, or school programming, also affect walk to school rates, but their collective impact is small if most students live beyond safe walking distance.

Comparison of the school wide walk/bike share to student proximity identifies three general categories of schools which differ in their walk to school and mode shift potential. These categories are demonstrated in the chart above and include: High Proximity - High Walk Shares, Untapped Walk Potential and Dispersed Enrollment - Limited Walk Potential.

For SRTS programs aimed at mode shift and GHG reductions specifically, the potential impact is a function of the number of students who are living within walking distance but are currently being driven. Finding and mapping this target audience is critical to effective programs, infrastructure, and investments. With support provided by the Barr Foundation, WalkBoston and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) developed a spatial framework for assessing district- and school-level walkability; new methods for collecting student commute data; and a formula for estimating the GHG footprint of student auto commutes and the reductions that might be achieved by successful SRTS programs.

Collectively, these comprise the outline of a Rapid Assessment Tool that could be used to prioritize, tailor, and measure the effectiveness of SRTS investments. The analysis also provides new insights into trip chaining, mode choice elasticity, and spatial factors that influence student travel patterns. These findings may support a more comprehensive approach to school commutes, one that draws strategies from the practice of transportation demand management to promote more sustainable transportation choices for all students. WalkBoston and MAPC recorded their findings and recommendations in this recently released report "Kids are Commuters Too Assessing the Mode Shift Potential of Walk to School Programs".

WalkBoston and MAPC:

  • Applied a new method of spatial analysis to over 800 schools in Eastern Massachusetts and defined “walksheds” of various distances based on mapped sidewalk infrastructure.
  • Evaluated land use and demographics to assess walkability potential across districts.
  • Surveyed over 4,500 students in 23 schools to better understand existing travel patterns.
  • Identified six schools with the greatest potential for greenhouse gas emissions reduction through increased walk & bike mode share.
  • Developed new methods and tools for replicating this analysis across Metro Boston and the U.S.


Transit Planning

WalkBoston’s involvement in transportation planning and community development projects now exceeds 20 years, with continuous staff and board member participation in public planning exercises in Boston throughout that period. We have noted that while traditional public participation processes carried out by public agencies are often full of energy, they primarily attract participants who have a zeal for community activism, have previously participated in the planning process and have honed their knowledge and understanding of transportation issues. These activists are able to participate with a high level of expertise, aiding public planning in a great variety of ways. During this same period, WalkBoston has also noticed that many community members are missing from planning processes, in particular the ‘under-represented’ people who seem to include members of minority groups, speakers who have Limited English Proficiency (LEP), or residents who are not familiar with public input processes.

Using a real-life setting, WalkBoston’s research project focused on developing and testing techniques to broaden the scope and range of public participation in transportation planning in a large neighborhood in Boston. The team explored methods of seeking out and talking with people who are seldom involved in the formal planning processes. The goal was to explore public participation techniques designed to elicit their opinions on the plans being developed by public agencies.

WalkBoston conducted its project in conjunction with a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) study of Bus Route #39 in Boston exploring a reduced number of bus stops and added passenger amenities such as bus stop shelters. WalkBoston also worked alongside a City of Boston planning and design team in the formal public participation process of the streetscape design project that focused on the corridor of Centre and South Streets through Jamaica Plain - the same corridor served by Bus Route #39.

Our work identified and tested low-cost, low tech public participation techniques such as short in-person surveys, door-to-door merchant interviews, presentations at local community meetings and “Walk-By Visioning” exercises.  Rather than inviting residents to come to planning meetings, these techniques we went to them – to bus stops, local professional/business/community meetings, community events and door-to-door in merchant interviews. For more information on these new techniques see our public participation brochures. 

WalkBoston identified two low-cost and low-tech techniques that are effective at engaging non-traditional participants in transit planning: Walk By Visioning and informal, individual merchant interviews (see the brochures for detailed descriptions). Our key research findings are as follows.

  • Many people are very willing and interested in participating in quick surveys/visioning exercises.
  • Approaching people in the field yielded high rates of participation. The venues that were tested for informal surveys and Walk-By Visioning exercises included bus stops and public events, and, for merchant interviews, person-to-person conversations at places of business (shops or offices).
  • Limited English Proficient (LEP) transit users were reluctant to participate in surveys, even with a Spanish-speaker conducting the interview. (Spanish is the primary second language spoken in the neighborhoods in which participation techniques were tested.)
  • People with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) were somewhat more willing to participate in the Walk-By Visioning exercise where photos were labeled in both English and Spanish.
  • Walk-By Visioning and personal interviews with merchants were the most successful techniques in getting participation from people who do not normally participate.
  • Walk-By Visioning is an interesting technique because of its novelty for most people, the responses it elicits from passers-by, and the potential it holds for providing input to the participation process that is typically part of a planning effort.
  • Merchant interviews are an effective means of communicating and helping to bring business people up-to-date on the planning projects, while also offering them an opportunity to give comments and suggestions.
  • Working with neighborhood organizations proved difficult for this research project because our efforts were focused on the techniques and methods of gathering input, and the organizations were not interested in participating unless there was the potential for more direct planning and design input. 
  • The techniques we developed are easily replicable for a wide variety of transit projects and could be undertaken by community groups as well as professional consultants and planners.
  • Information resulting from the fieldwork accomplished in this research was supplied to agency planners for potential use in current projects and as guidance for future public participation efforts. The research pointed toward predictable snow removal as one of the top priorities for bus stops in Jamaica Plain; subsequent efforts by the MBTA have resulted in new policies applicable to snow removal.