Humboldt State University

People on the Ground: Student Profiles

Sara Matthews

We all know the benefits of walking and biking to work or school: improved health, decreased pollution and an increased sense of community. But when it comes time to make the decision to walk or drive, why do so many of us chose the unhealthier alternative?

Blame it on laziness. Distance? Or maybe the weather?

In a recent paper published in the peer-reviewed journal The California Geographer, geography student Sara Matthews ('13) posits that our transportation choices may be influenced by something we don't often consider: our sense of community.

Working with her adviser and geography professor Matthew Derrick, Matthews examined the transportation choices of 132 HSU students who lived in Arcata. What she found is that those who identified as regular walkers and bikers also had one thing common: they reported a strong sense of community—or feeling "at home"—in Arcata.

A bike commuter herself, Matthews was interested in finding out why some HSU students find it easier to forego their cars and other motorized forms of transportation on a daily basis in favor of walking or biking to campus.

"We all make hundreds of choices throughout the day—to hit snooze or to get up, drink coffee or tea, phone Mom or don't, eat organic or eat regular, buy local or cheap," Matthews says. "I was interested in how we make our choice of getting from point A to point B. It affects atmospheric warming more than any other decision a person could make."

For the study, Matthews distributed a survey to 132 HSU students who reside in Arcata. She asked them to identify where they live on a map, discuss their transportation habits and their reasons for walking, biking or driving to school.

What they found is that students who reported feeling 'at home' in Arcata, made a much higher percentage of their trips by active transport: (71 percent) versus those who didn't feel 'at home' (32 percent).

'Feeling at home' was described as having a strong sense of attachment to or affinity for Arcata. "What the study shows is that when students are reminded of the benefits of active transport and regain intimacy with the place in which they live, they largely adopt more sustainable habits," Matthews says.

She says the trend could be self-fulfilling. "The more you walk the more invested in your community you become, which in turn compels you walk more."

The top reasons for biking or walking to school were being outside and interacting with the community, closely followed by exercise and the desire to avoid parking hassles, Matthews says.

Another interesting finding was that very few students cited safety or lack of infrastructure as impediments to biking or walking to campus. "What that shows is that the city of Arcata has done a good job encouraging active transport and further efforts to encourage cyclist and pedestrian growth might be better directed elsewhere," she says.

Matthews' study could have implications for Arcata city officials as they plan future bike and pedestrian paths. About 20 percent of trips in Arcata are already taken by foot or bike, nearly ten times the California average.