If you are thinking of incorporating some walking in your daily commute to stay healthy and boost your radiant glow, take heart and take note.

Modern cities across the globe are becoming more “walk-friendly” in an effort to encourage people to rely less on vehicles and travel by foot. As more people than ever before are now living in cities where the city-dweller lifestyle may bring about many health challenges, city planners, health experts and politicians are waking up to the benefits of spurring people to walk.


Not Just a Physical Issue

Besides making the urbanscape a more pleasant place, safer and more secure, cleaner with less pollution, improving a city’s infrastructure to promote walking is also a good way to undo traffic deadlock and improve people’s health.

However, many cities and streets have been constructed with vehicles in mind, and such urban design tends not to favour walking. The number of roads and crossings, open and shade-less spaces and dust form a particular challenge to promote more active lifestyles.

As such, governments, politicians, urban planners and academics have performed extensive research on what factors can make walking in the city an attractive option for commuters: size of buildings, pavement material and quality, the presence of foliage, furniture and fixtures, or initiatives such as car-lite days and car-free zones.

And it is not just about taking the first step but also staying committed to keep walking and travel further.

But while they strive to understand what makes it attractive or, at least, less off-putting for pedestrians to choose walking over other modes of transport, they often miss out on the fact that where and when people choose to walk are determined by factors beyond the physical environment. In fact, new research found that making a conscious choice to walk is strongly influenced by others.


Walking Influencers?

It’s well-known that people are social creatures, so it should not surprise you when we say people are greatly influenced by their social circles.

In the 1970s, Mark Granovetter, an American sociologist, believed that rumours-spreading, the adoption of technology and job searches were all largely influenced by one’s social circle and network. Similarly, Paul Burstein and Carl Sheingold, both sociologists, realised that electoral voting patterns were also greatly influenced by one’s social circles. Recently, researchers found if your social networks are made up of obese friends, you will tend to be obese as well.

Therefore, there is compelling evidence that the physical act and the psychological decision to walk has a social dimension too. For instance, your child probably more willing to walk to school if there is someone such as a sibling or friend to go with. A person’s gender, social status and the distance are some of the factors affecting one’s choice to walk too. One would also prefer to walk with family and friends when it’s for leisure.

This is dubbed as “social wayfinding”.


What is Social Wayfinding?

A clear example of social wayfinding is when you and a friend or a group of people are travelling or commuting together to reach a common destination, and in the process, you all plan where to go together, find landmarks together and decide the preferred route together. It can also take place when you take suggestions, tips and guidance from others when asking for directions, influencing your route choice. Such actions become less of a social affair when there is a clear leader with the others just following behind in cases of tour guides leading a group of tourists or simply someone bringing you to his/her house. These examples indicate strong social wayfinding since the decisions are influenced by others in a direct and intentional way.

In cases when you and other travellers share the same destination — for instance, when you and some fellow fans are going by train to watch a concert – you are more likely to adopt whatever is the popular mode of commute. Likewise, how people move through streets, alleyways and back lanes between buildings may subtly influence how you arrive at your destination. These are is dubbed weak social wayfinding.

There are other factors as well.

Timing, such as being given direction before you begin on your journey or while you are in the middle of it (e.g. via a phone call), and paths left behind by people such as grass trails or darkened pavements that can all indirectly influence where to go and which way to go by.


Find Your Way Around Is Not An Isolated Activity

While people utilise various social wayfinding tools throughout their journeys on foot, people also use digital applications like GPS and maps in social ways.

Although these apps are generally designed for solo use, it is common for groups of people to share a single mobile device for the same journey, interpreting the guide and making decisions together.

Creating an infrastructure that promotes walking will, of course, demand urban planners and the city’s administration to acknowledge what “hardware” is helpful to achieve that, but they must not discount the idea that a person’s choice to walk, when to walk, and where to walk can be influenced by social wayfinding. This will help city architects understand the challenge more realistically and give them the added edge to make their efforts more effective and persuasive.