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Physical Environment Level: The Built Environment and Active Transportation

Our cities and towns are built for cars, not people.

What do we mean by active transportation?

Active transportation refers to getting from one place to another (e.g., the library, the grocery store, school, etc.) through “human-powered” transportation: walking, biking, or “wheeling” (i.e., travelling by wheelchair, scooter or in-line skating). Of course, people walk or cycle as a form of leisure or recreational exercise, too. But when it is done with the intent of getting to a destination, it is considered active transportation. Often, active transportation is combined with public transportation. For example, people will walk to the bus stop, take the bus to a spot that is close to their destination, and then walk the rest of the way.

Active commuting is a specific type of active transportation and refers to using “human- powered” transportation for getting to and from work.

What do we mean by built environment?

The built environment refers to aspects of the environment that are built by people, as opposed to occurring naturally. The natural environment includes, for example, trees, lakes, hills, and climate. The built environment includes, for example, sidewalks, roads, office buildings, schools, and recreation facilities, as well as neighbourhood design.

How the Built Environment Encourages Active Transportation

The following aspects of the built environment encourage physical activity.

  • Bicycles and carsWell-lit, well-maintained sidewalks with curb cuts
  • Well-lit, well-maintained bike lanes and walking paths
  • Street lights and crosswalks that allow adequate time for crossing
  • Countdown timers on pedestrian lights
  • Aesthetically pleasing streets and neighborhoods
  • Street calming measures such as traffic circles, speed bumps, or other means to slow traffic
  • Neighborhoods with a variety of services and businesses in close proximity to one another. “Density” encourages physical activity. It’s much easier to justify driving when the grocery store is far from the other stores you’re stopping at.
  • Neighborhoods and communities are used for a variety of purposes: business, services, parks, and houses (i.e., mixed-use neighbourhoods)
  • Streets designed using the grid system (i.e., straight running streets and avenues) and back alleys. The grid system is easier and quicker to navigate when walking or cycling than curved streets or cul-de-sacs with no close connecting roads.
  • Local, central meeting areas, such as parks, cafés, and playgrounds. These provide the opportunity to meet friends or run into neighbors. They also help instill a sense of a community.

I don’t have much exercise, so I purposely walk a few blocks to take a bus even though it’s just near my home.
New Canadian focus group participant

The road that I live on, the way it’s developed is there’s a sidewalk if someone’s built a house or an apartment. [But] if there’s a vacant lot, there’s no sidewalk. So there’ll be sidewalk for 100 feet and then it dives off into mud.
Rural focus group participant

Actually I wanted to hand cycle to work . . . and leave my wheelchair at work. We have a shower, we have a gym at work. But then . . . to get to work [there] is heavy traffic. And the sidewalk, it’s not conducive for a hand cycle.
Focus group participant with a disability

Enhancing the Built Environment: An Ecological Approach

Yikes! Change built structures?! Change how streets are designed?! Is that even possible?! Improving the built environment so that it promotes active transportation can seem like an overwhelming task. Generally, large changes are needed, but small changes can make a difference, too. Choose one of the following headings to discover practical strategies—both big and small—for improving the built environment:
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  • The Individual
  • The Social Environment
  • The Physical Environment
  • Policies and Regulations

Strategies for enhancing the built environment



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