Urban Design Walkability Sustainability

Five Reasons Demand for Walkability is Growing Across America

To continue our discussion of walkability, today we’re taking a look at the some of the leading reasons behind the growing demand for walkable community design across the country.

Walkability is not a new value: in fact, it’s an old one. But, with the rise of the automobile in the 1920s came the decline of walkability in America, and suburban sprawl became the defining feature of 20th-century development. Only recently has the tide started to turn back toward urban development patterns that focus on the creation of walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

The good news: this shift in living preferences and development patterns doesn’t seem to be a passing trend. Increasingly, Americans from big cities to small towns alike are demanding communities designed for walking, where daily errands can be accomplished without the use of cars and foot travel is appealing and safe. In a 2013 survey by the National Association of Realtors, 60% of Americans reported a preference for a neighborhood with a “mix of houses, stores and businesses that are easy to walk to,” while only 35% said they prefered a “neighborhood with houses only that requires driving to stores and businesses.” Among young people, the trend is even more pronounced, with 77% of millennials expressing a desire for a walkable lifestyle.

Walkability is not a new value: in fact, it’s an old one.

Americans aren’t only reporting a desire to drive less: the data shows a real change in their behavior. Suburban sprawl, and the excessive car use that come with it, have peaked and the demand for this type of development is tapering off. Since 2005, miles driven per capita have plummeted.

As the data shows, highly walkable urbanism is the model for the future development of many — and possibly most — of the 30 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. The reasons for this trend are many and various, but for now let’s take a look at just five:

Walkable communities are better for the economy

Walkable communities improve outcomes for local stores, provide jobs for a significant portion of the American workforce and hold housing value. These trends are backed up by data.

The Irvine Minnesota Inventory, a tool developed at the University of California, Irvine and refined at the University of Minnesota, measures the link between built environments and physical activity. The 160 items considered in the inventory are focused in four categories: “accessibility, pleasurability, perceived safety from traffic, and perceived safety from crime.” When researchers at the Brookings Institution used this inventory to construct a five-tiered walkability scale, they found that retail sales correlated with walkability. For each step up the walkability scale, a neighborhood was ranked, a store in that neighborhood was likely to see an 80 percent gain in retail sales.

Why the notable economic payoff? For one thing, the increase in sidewalk traffic in more walkable neighborhoods helps stores thrive. It’s clear a location in a walkable community may be key to the success of a local business.

In fact, many communities seek out walkable development as an economic driver. In 2013, Opticos worked with the community of Bridgeport, California to revitalize its Main Street business district by creating a more pedestrian-friendly downtown area. The same year, Opticos won a CNU Charter Award for the Richmond Livable Corridors project, in which the team correlated a minimum density of 16 dwelling units per acre to bring needed retail businesses and other services to Richmond neighborhoods. 

Thriving businesses in turn increase the job availability in their walkable neighborhoods. The Brookings report found that residents in areas that were given a walkability level four (the second-best ranking), could on average “access over 15 percent more jobs in the region within 90 minutes than residents in places at level 3, and 21 percent more than residents in places at level 2.” Another study, this one focused on the Atlanta region of Georgia, found a similar effect within the area. The study, from the George Washington University School of Business, found that current and emerging walkable urban communities (which the authors term “WalkUPs”) “contain 22 percent of the region’s jobs,” despite covering only 0.55% of the region’s land.

Is it any surprise, given these economic benefits, that housing prices in walkable urban neighborhoods have stayed strong even through the 2008 crash of the housing market as a whole?

Older adults desire walkable lifestyles

The interest in walkable neighborhoods doesn’t end at retirement. While the shift toward cities is often characterized as millennial-driven, surveys show that both the old and the young “want to live where they can walk, use transit and enjoy public space.” Many older adults want to “age in place,” and are looking to stay in communities where they can be near family, friends and services. According to AARP, more than 20% of those 65 and older do not drive, so walkability and transit-accessibility are a key concern to this group.

As we discussed last week, some studies have even suggested that living in walkable communities can help seniors stay mentally sharp, which helps people stay independent as they age. It’s no secret that the U.S. population is aging: by 2030, almost 20% of Americans will be over age 65. This is a significant demographic shift from our country’s past. In 1970, this age group represented only 9.8% of the population, and even in 2010 only 13%. Given this trend, urban planners must consider how their work can help older adults stay physically  and mentally healthy, and maintain their independence as much as possible, and walkability can help.

Americans are more focused than ever on sustainability

Around the world, people are showing a growing interest in making sustainable choices in their daily lives. According to a recent Nielsen study, fifty-five percent of global online consumers across 60 countries say they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.”

In the U.S., an increasing focus on environmental sustainability is causing citizens to leave behind the 20th-century car culture in favor of walking, biking and public transit. Walkable neighborhoods offer to free residents from their dependence on cars and shrink their carbon footprints.

This too is supported by research: at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers foundconsistently lower HCF (household carbon footprint) in urban core cities (40 tCO2e) and higher carbon footprints in outlying suburbs (50 tCO2e)’.” On a national scale, a Boston University study revealed that “Denver and Detroit both have around 2,000 residents per square kilometer and both have more than twice as much vehicle emissions per capita as cities with around 4,000 residents per square kilometer, such as Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.”

When commuters trade their long suburban drives for a walk or subway ride to work, they cut down on pollution and traffic. They can also save a significant amount of money on transportation.

In the Bay Area, Opticos has worked with communities including Vallejo and Martinez to build transit-oriented infill in priority development areas. Plan Bay Area calls on California cities and towns to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and these communities are planning their future growth to meet those standards.

The car is falling out of favor

For decades now, owning a car has been a necessity for those living in suburban sprawl neighborhoods who need to get to work, run errands and stay involved in the community. Learning to drive has been a rite of passage for many. But today, the cost of owning a car is increasing steadily, and about one-sixth of all American family budgets go to transportation. This is second only to the share of income spent on housing, and these costs are, along with the sustainability movement, driving an enormous change in how Americans get around.

Today, over a quarter of Americans ages 16 to 34 do not have a driver’s license. From 2004 to 2014, the number of miles driven by Americans in this age group “dropped 40 percent per capita compared to the same age group in the previous decade.” At the same time, the same cohort of individuals biked 24 percent more and walked 16 percent more. These people are not looking to live in a suburban home a twenty-minute drive from the nearest grocery store. Cities, towns and developers must adapt to this reality.

Walkable neighborhoods are more transportation-equitable and accessible

According to a 2014 report from Interest.com, the average price of a new car is over $32,000, putting a new vehicle out of reach of the average American family. Even for those who purchase used cars and keep their own vehicles running smoothly for many years, car ownerships comes with insurance costs, fuel costs and service costs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, even with the fall in gas prices this year, Americans are still on track to spend an average of nearly $2,000 per household on gasoline alone in 2015.

In suburban sprawl, most households require cars to get to work, school and regular errands. Car ownership may, in many cases, be a prerequisite to holding a job, because there is no other practical way to get to and from work. Purchasing a car may come before other household needs because of this.

In walkable, transit-oriented communities, this is not the case. In many of our nation’s urban areas, the number of car-free households has been growing. Abundant transportation options open a range of job opportunities to those who cannot afford a car, and to those who do not drive for health or ability reasons. For example, when properly designed, walkable, transit-oriented developments can be more inclusive of blind citizens.

Are you feeling the demand for walkability grow in your city? More missing middle housing and a form-based code to replace outdated zoning regulations could be the answer.

To see what we’ve done to help other communities become more walkable, take a look at our work in Hercules, California. And you can always contact us to learn more or chat about the future of your own community.