It is hard to realize how car-dependent suburbs are–until you attempt to walk in one. Suddenly, inconsistent sidewalk access, wide lanes of traffic to cross on short walk lights, and sheer distance begins to make getting around more daunting. For decades, the stereotypical American family lived in the suburbs, relying on at least two cars to get around. In the last several years, young people have been bucking this trend, leading to the revitalization of urban centers. Walkable cities are becoming an increasingly popular trend in urban design, putting the focus on getting feet on sidewalks, rather than cars on the roads.
According to statistics from the National Association of Realtors, 62 percent of millennials prefer living in walkable communities that have short commutes, even if this means living in townhouses or apartments. Meanwhile, members of Gen-X and the Baby Boom still prefer living in houses in suburban areas and relying on a car to get around. Even accounting for this generational split, more than half of Americans would rather live in areas where houses have smaller yards but are within walking distance of community amenities.
The numbers show the continuation of a wider trend away from the focus on the car and towards creating spaces where people walk and participate in outdoor events.
Urban neighborhoods where residents primarily walk are both more economically vibrant and also more expensive than their suburban counterparts. Two researchers from the Brookings Institution studied different neighborhoods in the greater Washington, D.C. area, judging the “walkability” of different neighborhoods on the basis of features like aesthetics, personal safety, traffic signals, and pedestrian amenities like good sidewalks and street furniture. They found a strong correlation between the walkability of a neighborhood and its economic health.
On the whole, they found that higher walkability scores were linked to stronger neighborhood economic health. For each step up the five-tiered scale the researchers developed, a store was likely to boost its sales by nearly 80 percent, thanks to increased foot traffic. Statistics show that these increased sales come because, while walkers and transit users spend less per visit to local businesses than drivers do, they make more visits. Rental rates for apartments, office space, and storefronts were higher as well.
This exposes one of the underlying economic tensions in walkable communities. Lower transportation costs often come alongside higher rent prices, placing these neighborhoods out of reach for lower-income Americans.
“Based on data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, we found that places with fair to very good walkability have significantly lower transportation costs than do places with poor to very poor walkability,” write Christopher B. Leinberge and Mariela Alfonzo for the Brookings Institution. “Alternatively, walkable areas have significantly higher housing costs than those with fewer environmental amenities.”
In the greater Washington area, they found that people living in areas with relatively good walkability scores spent 28 percent less of their average monthly income on transportation, but paid 17 percent more on housing. This makes sense, considering that some of the region’s most walkable neighborhoods, like Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and Georgetown are also some of its most expensive.
Even areas without the sort of multi-use built environments that new urbanists praise have found ways to benefit from foot traffic through seasonal events. These range in size from music festivals like EDC, which brought 400,000 people and more than $1.3 billion in economic impact to Las Vegas, to smaller celebrations like the Northwest Garlic Festival in Ocean Park, Washington, or the Holidazzle seasonal village in Minneapolis.
Events like festivals draw on a sense of community pride. They also lead to increased economic activity by bringing in people who wouldn’t necessarily come into these areas.
Walkability is only a part of restoring urban centers. It largely goes hand in hand with a switch towards walkable communities, which offer everyday services like dry cleaning and groceries within a few block radius of housing options. This model is increasingly taking the place of retail centers with large destination stores. For example, for years, Minneapolis has struggled to reinvigorate Nicollet Mall, a central thoroughfare open only to pedestrian and bus traffic. In the 1970s, the street boasted 4 flagship department stores.
Today it has none, after Macy’s announced that it was closing a storefront that originally opened in 1902. Instead, retail in the city is thriving in other neighborhoods that allow entrepreneurs to build on a smaller scale, catering to people who live in the area.
Instead of thinking about mandatory parking requirements, city planners are increasingly finding that pedestrians are one of the best ways to encourage economic development. By working to slow the pace of traffic, or to block cars from driving in certain areas encourages the development of a neighborhood feeling and leads to a better business environment. Post-war America was defined by interstates and cars, but the neighborhoods of today are eschewing suburbs for sidewalks and small businesses.