Colorful sidewalks move tourists, Purdue HTM researchers discover

Jun Chen

Jun Chen

Written by: Tim Brouk,

Encouraging Americans to move more is a goal of physicians and healthcare workers nationwide because it’s an effective way for most people to improve physical health — even while on vacation.

A team of Purdue University researchers in the White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) and College of Engineering investigated whether Americans were willing to put on their walking shoes to take in the sights and sounds at an urban tourist destination. Instead of traveling by a car, a rideshare service or even a Bird scooter, walking on your vacation can keep your step count intact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association recommend walking for 30 minutes per day, which works out to a distance for many people of around two miles. So, being active on vacation is important.

In the study, led by HTM PhD student Jun Chen and Professor Xinran Lehto, the researchers surveyed almost 2,000 U.S. adults to understand if colorful sidewalks, images of people moving and even just the image of walking shoes would entice vacationers to skip Uber and hoof it themselves. Mark Lehto, Purdue professor of industrial engineering, also participated in the project.

Xinran Lehto

Xinran Lehto

The research, published in the April 2023 Tourism Management journal, found those polled would be more apt to walk around the city if the paths leading them to a museum or historic site were clearly marked and decorated. The images of people walking or merely of their sneakers were encouraging as well, whether they were posted near the paths or in hotels, the project also found.

“In the study, we noticed that the color actually enhanced people’s mood, making them feel more alive, more happy,” Lehto said. “Perhaps the colored sidewalk itself is a promise of activities or something fun. You feel spatially oriented and don’t have to worry about taking any kind of motorized vehicle. All you need is some spirit of fun, venturing into what the city can offer.”

Some cities have special walking paths that are painted in attention-grabbing colors to differentiate them from “nude” sidewalks. Examples of cities’ investing in walking routes or colorful sidewalks include walking portions of Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail, downtown Lafayette crosswalks adorned with fleur-de-lis stencils and the Freedom Trail in Boston, which connects 16 historic sites along 2.5 miles of red brick.


A total of 2,160 U.S. respondents were recruited via Mechanical Turk, an opt-in online panel. Of those respondents, 1,984 completed the survey and served as the sample of this study for analysis. 

The researchers used Likert scale questions to measure participants’ levels of excitement, enjoyment and attention regarding the colorful sidewalks and active imagery. The sidewalks and imagery were employed as “nudges” for potential walking tourists. By making small changes to the environment, these nudges are desirable influencers that drive behaviors, the study found.

“Small nudges like this seem to have quite an effect,” Xinran Lehto explained. “They can really nudge people to be more physically active.”

Mark Lehto concurred, “It’s putting in environmental cues that encourage healthy behavior. To me, that’s really the most significant element to this. It’s showing that, yes, some relatively simple cues can actually increase the behavior. If you come back and think about it from the broader perspective of a tourist, they are going to be in some type of an unfamiliar environment. So, what types of cues can you put in the environment that encourage them to behave in healthy, active ways?”

The survey featured images of sneakers, active imagery, and urban tourism sites with red or blue sidewalks implemented into the cityscape. Blue was selected for its “calmness” while red was included for its “energy.”


The authors had thought the colorful sidewalks and nudge imagery would have a positive effect on the survey participants, and the data supported their hypotheses.

The study found participants 32% and 33% more likely to walk on red and blue sidewalks, respectively, compared with regular, or “nude,” sidewalks. Positive results were calculated for the other nudges, too: Images of active people also increased the likelihood of taking a walk by almost one-third, and subjects were 20% more likely to have a walkabout if they were “primed” with sneaker imagery. Participants scored the categories of “excitement,” “enjoyment” and “attention” higher because of the behavioral nudge designs.

This research notes that tourism and hospitality professionals can motivate visitors to lace up their walking shoes through some paint and graphic design.

“There’s a lot as to what you can do to strategically and thoughtfully place nudges, like artwork in the hotel room or in the coffee shop or on the streets, to give the idea that it’s a pleasure to walk,” Xinran Lehto said. “Encourage people to be free to wander about, roam about. The experience can be so much better because the health benefit is very obvious.”

She continued, “Sometimes I feel like some of the hospitality and tourism folks aren’t necessarily thinking about these things. They instead simply focus on using sensing and tracking technologies to standardize and control what they offer. There can be an adverse effect if you don’t allow people the health benefit of feeling free from digital technologies and obligations.”

No external funding was used for this research.