This study drew on the criminology literature to investigate the assumption that reported or ‘objective’ crime presents a barrier to residents’ walking. Somewhat counter-intuitively, we found a positive association between crime and walking, which is at odds with many of the studies examining reported crime and physical activity ,,–,. However, our findings also provide a plausible explanation for other studies that document null or counterintuitive associations between crime and physical activity ,–,.
This study suggests that the destinations that underpin a more walkable neighbourhood are associated with both walking frequency and crime, but importantly, in these neighbourhoods crime does not appear to deter walkers. Specifically, we found that both burglary and personal crimes were positively associated with walking, but attenuated after adjusting for key characteristics of a walkable neighbourhood. While residential density and street connectivity had little attenuating influence, the presence of local destinations, and more specifically, destinations that potentially serve alcohol, appeared to explain the association between crime and walking. This pattern was largely consistent for both the 400 m and 1600 m ‘neighbourhood’ service areas, although there was less attenuation of the association between burglary and walking for the 400 m area.
It is well recognised that the presence of destinations required for daily living are vital to creating a healthy, walkable environment , but paradoxically there are potential unintended consequences associated with this. For example, a greater number or variety of destinations can draw people into an area which can increase crime levels , and perceptions of crime risk ,. This largely stems from the opportunistic nature of many offences, where crimes are often committed as opportunities arise, whilst individuals travel to and carry out their routine activities . Just as walkable neighbourhood characteristics often occur concurrently (i.e., residential density, street connectivity and mixed land-uses) ; crime may be a ‘part of modern life’ that is intertwined with certain land-uses and physical characteristics of places ,. Indeed, higher levels of crime might be a necessary trade-off to live in a more walkable, potentially vibrant neighbourhood.
In this study, there was greater attenuation of the association between personal crime and walking when destinations were limited to those likely to serve alcohol. This might be expected, given the strong links between alcohol outlets and crime, particularly violent offences committed in the public realm –. Nonetheless, it was apparent that neither alcohol-related destinations, nor the offences related to them, had any negative impact on walkers, perhaps suggesting a more nuanced relationship between the social and built realm of local communities. For example, while alcohol outlets can lead to public intoxication, violence, street disturbances, and a range of other social problems ,, a well-run venue can also provide an important meeting place for social interaction and can potentially be an asset to a local community . This role as a ‘third place’  may offset or balance some of the negative consequences of such venues.
This study was set in a relatively safe city, largely dominated by low-density suburban development, often with poor access to shops, services and public transport . Thus, it is possible that the crime levels were insufficient to negatively impact walking. One might hypothesise that different findings would be evident in areas with higher crime levels, where residents are genuinely more vulnerable; however no clear pattern emerges from the studies set in lower socio-economic or deprived communities ,,,. The association between objective crime and physical activity is likely to be more complex, with numerous other factors impacting the association, including the age of participants , individual and area-level socio-economic status ,,, perceptions of neighbourhood trust and cohesiveness , and as demonstrated in our study, the characteristics of a walkable environment.
This study focused exclusively on the association between objective measures of crime and walking, as subjective perceptions of crime were not available. However, previous research in the same relatively safe city highlights the different findings that can stem from subjective crime measures, particularly emotional responses to crime ,,. While the current study found that objective crime had little bearing on whether residents’ walk, our recent longitudinal study found that fear of crime (i.e., a subjective, emotional response to crime) had a significant, and sizeable, negative influence on walking. For every increase in fear of crime on a five-point scale, total walking reduced by approximately 22 minutes per week . The contradiction between these findings accentuates the disconnect between objective and subjective measures of crime. There are additional complexities associated with subjective crime measures, and the actual incidence of crime may be just one among many factors that impact perceptions of crime or emotional responses to crime ,,. Indeed, it has been suggested that fear of crime may capture other, more nebulous anxieties about life, which are ‘projected onto a knowable and name-able fear’ , p.261. In relatively low crime settings, emotional responses to crime may ultimately prove a more powerful influence on walking than actual crime, but notably, alleviating fear of crime may be better achieved by targeting the individual, social and physical environmental factors that can impact fear, such as social connections and neighbourhood upkeep, rather than crime reduction per se.
This study has a number of limitations. First, we focused on the associations between objective (or reported) crime and walking, and crime categories were limited to burglary and personal crime in public space. These data may underrepresent serious offences due to embarrassment or concerns about retaliation, and there may be a discrepancy in the reporting of crime to police by socio-economic status (i.e., crime is more likely to be reported in high income areas) . Moreover, the offences examined in this study are not necessarily ‘visible’, and it is plausible that crime might only deter walkers in neighbourhoods where there are also visual indicators of crime (e.g., graffiti, vandalism, litter, drug paraphernalia). Second, we examined self-report walking frequency but are unable to identify whether walking was undertaken locally. It is possible that residents in higher crime neighbourhoods walk in other, safer environments. Third, this is a cross-sectional study, and there-fore participants who prefer to walk may choose to live in more walkable neighbourhoods, perhaps with a tacit awareness that there may also be more crime . Despite these limitations, the study also had several strengths, including a large population representative sample, and individual-level environment measures for each participant’s 400 m and 1600 m neighbourhoods.