National column: People want walkable cities

Americans are moving away from suburbia and city planners have moved toward a more urban model to better suit foot traffic, writes Erin Mundahl.

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.

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.”

Walkability is only a part of restoring urban centers. It largely goes hand in hand with a switch toward 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.

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, such thinking 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.

Erin Mundahl is a reporter with