Although the health benefits of participating in regular physical activity have been well established , only 39% of men and 29% of women in England meet recommended guidelines . The physical environment has been identified in ecological models as an important influence on physical activity behaviour . Therefore identifying attributes of the physical environment associated with higher levels of physical activity could help provide pointers for changing the environment to support a sustainable increase in physical activity participation. A number of such attributes have been shown to be associated with participation in physical activity in general, or with specific types of activity such as walking and cycling in local neighbourhoods [4–7].
Emerging evidence suggests that different attributes of the environment are associated with activities being undertaken for different purposes, such as walking and cycling for transport or for recreation [8–12]. For example, reviews suggest that walking for transport is associated with density, land use mix, street connectivity and proximity of destinations [10, 12], while walking for recreation or leisure is associated with pedestrian infrastructure, land use mix, personal safety and aesthetics . Fewer studies have explored environmental attributes and their associations with cycling for transport or recreation. The presence of dedicated cycle routes or paths, separation of cycling from other traffic, high population density and proximity of a cycle path or green space have been found to be positively associated with cycling for transport . This behaviour has also been reported to be positively related to a ‘cyclability’ index including proximity to destinations, good walking and cycling facilities, difficulty in parking near shopping areas and aesthetics . Evidence from European studies suggests positive relationships between cycling for transport and residential density, land use mix, street connectivity, access to destinations and degree of urbanisation, and some evidence for a relationship between cycling for recreation and walking and cycling infrastructure .
Understanding the relationships between different characteristics of the physical environment and participation in specific behaviours is important for informing transport and planning policy and practice with the regards to the development of ‘activity friendly’ environments that support different types of activity. However, to date, few studies have examined physical environment attributes and their association with walking and cycling behaviours separately and for different purposes. Many studies have assessed only one of the behaviours (e.g. walking or cycling), one behaviour for one specific purpose (e.g. walking for transport), or one all-encompassing behavioural outcome (e.g. total walking or total cycling). In addition, most studies have been conducted in the USA and Australia, where the context may differ from that of other countries in terms of urban design, land use and transport infrastructure. Studies that assess relationships of different attributes of the physical environment with each of the four behaviours separately are therefore needed, particularly in countries such as the UK.
When conducting physical activity research it is often necessary to collect detailed data on a variety of complex behaviours (physical activity, travel, sedentary time) as well as on proposed individual, social and environmental influences on those behaviours. However, excessively long questionnaires can discourage participation in research [15, 16] and it is therefore important to develop instruments that assess the factors of interest using as few items as possible. This paper reports on the development of a new, short scale to assess perceptions of the environment in the neighbourhood (PENS), including its factor structure and test-retest reliability, and its application to examine which characteristics of the neighbourhood physical environment are associated with the likelihood of participating in walking and cycling for transport and recreation as separate behaviours in the UK. This study was undertaken as part of the iConnect project, a five-year natural experimental study that aims to assess the impact of improving walking and cycling infrastructure on travel, physical activity and carbon emissions .