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Is the relationship between the built environment and physical activity moderated by perceptions of crime and safety?

Nicole L Bracy1, Rachel A Millstein2, Jordan A Carlson3, Terry L Conway3, James F Sallis3*, Brian E Saelens4, Jacqueline Kerr3, Kelli L Cain3, Lawrence D Frank5 and Abby C King6

Author Affiliations

1 Harder + Company Community Research and San Diego State University, School of Public Affairs, 3965 Fifth Avenue, Suite 420, San Diego, CA 92103, USA

2 SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, 3900 Fifth Avenue, Suite 310, San Diego, CA 92103, USA

3 Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of California, San Diego, 3900 Fifth Avenue, Suite 310, San Diego, CA 92103, USA

4 Department of Pediatrics, University of Washington & Seattle Children’s Research Institute, 2001 Eighth Avenue, Suite 400, Seattle, WA 98121, USA

5 School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC, #433-6333 Memorial Road, Vancouver BC V6T 1Z2, Canada

6 Department of Health Research & Policy and Stanford Prevention Research Center, Department of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, 259 Campus Drive, HRP Redwood Building, T221, Stanford, CA 94305-5405, USA

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International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014, 11:24  doi:10.1186/1479-5868-11-24

Published: 24 February 2014



Direct relationships between safety concerns and physical activity have been inconsistently patterned in the literature. To tease out these relationships, crime, pedestrian, and traffic safety were examined as moderators of built environment associations with physical activity.


Exploratory analyses used two cross-sectional studies of 2068 adults ages 20–65 and 718 seniors ages 66+ with similar designs and measures. The studies were conducted in the Baltimore, Maryland-Washington, DC and Seattle-King County, Washington regions during 2001–2005 (adults) and 2005–2008 (seniors). Participants were recruited from areas selected to sample high- and low- income and walkability. Independent variables perceived crime, traffic, and pedestrian safety were measured using scales from validated instruments. A GIS-based walkability index was calculated for a street-network buffer around each participant’s home address. Outcomes were total physical activity measured using accelerometers and transportation and leisure walking measured with validated self-reports (IPAQ-long). Mixed effects regression models were conducted separately for each sample.


Of 36 interactions evaluated across both studies, only 5 were significant (p < .05). Significant interactions did not consistently support a pattern of highest physical activity when safety was rated high and environments were favorable. There was not consistent evidence that safety concerns reduced the beneficial effects of favorable environments on physical activity. Only pedestrian safety showed evidence of a consistent main effect with physical activity outcomes, possibly because pedestrian safety items (e.g., crosswalks, sidewalks) were not as subjective as those on the crime and traffic safety scales.


Clear relationships between crime, pedestrian, and traffic safety with physical activity levels remain elusive. The development of more precise safety variables and the use of neighborhood-specific physical activity outcomes may help to elucidate these relationships.

Ecological models; Older adults; Parks; Social environment; Walkability; Traffic; Transportation