Towards an understanding of salient neighborhood boundaries: adolescent reports of an easy walking distance and convenient driving distance

Numerous studies have examined the association between the surrounding neighborhood environment and physical activity levels in adolescents. Many of these studies use a road network buffer or Euclidean distance buffer around an adolescent's home to represent the appropriate geographic area for study (i.e., neighborhood). However, little empirical research has examined the appropriate buffer size to use when defining this area and there is little consistency across published research as to the buffer size used. In this study, 909 12 th grade adolescent girls of diverse racial and geographic backgrounds were asked to report their perceptions of an easy walking distance and a convenient driving distance. These two criterions are often used as the basis for defining one's neighborhood. The mean easy walking distance in minutes reported by adolescent girls was 14.8 minutes (SD = 8.7). The mean convenient driving distance in minutes reported was 17.9 minutes (SD = 10.8). Nested linear multivariate regression models found significant differences in reported 'easy walking distance' across race and BMI. White adolescents reported on average almost 2 minutes longer for an easy walking distance compared to African American adolescents. Adolescents who were not overweight or at risk for overweight reported almost 2 minutes fewer for an easy walking distance relative to those who were overweight or at risk for overweight. Significant differences by urban status were found in the reported 'convenient driving distance'. Those living in non-urban areas reported on average 3.2 minutes more driving time as convenient compared to those living in urban areas. Very little variability in reported walking and driving distances was explained by the predictors used in the models (i.e., age, race, BMI, physical activity levels, urban status and SES). This study suggests the use of a 0.75 mile buffer to represent an older female adolescent's neighborhood, which can be accessed through walking. However, determining the appropriate area inclusive of car travel should be tailored to the geographic location of the adolescent since non-urban adolescents are willing to spend more time driving to destinations. Further research is needed to understand the substantial variability across adolescent perceptions of an easy walking and convenient driving distance.