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The Economic Argument For Walkability

By Mathew Katz

If the American Dream of the Baby Boomers was all about being able to have a car and a house in suburbia, the new American Dream is having the choice between living in drivable suburban places and walkable urban ones.

That's according to Chris Leinberger, a land use strategist at the Brookings Institution, who spoke today at the Walk21 Conference. There's a simple supply-and-demand argument, Leinberger says, for creating more walkable urban space: About the the same number of people want to live in a pedestrian-friendly environment as those who want to live in a drivable suburban one, but the supply of housing in walkable urban areas makes up only 5 to 10 percent of housing nationwide. As millions of New Yorkers know, that leads to exceedingly high prices. 

But that's not always a bad thing. Sarah Gaventa, Director of CABE Space in the U.K., said that her organization managed to prove that walkability adds value to nearby property and attracts investment. CABE developed a scale to rate pedestrian-friendliness called the Pedestrian Environment Rating System (PERS). For every point on the PERS scale, neighborhoods saw a 5.2 percent increase in residential prices and a 4.9 percent increase in retail rent. Attracting more retail and consumers also means more jobs, though there should be incentives to maintain local businesses and affordable housing, Gaventa said. Having proof that making a space more pedestrian friendly will add value to it is a great way to convince those in power that change -- and a more comprehensive strategy -- is needed.

That strategy, Leinberger said, should be the development of more places where residents' everyday needs are within a maximum of 3,000 feet. We've largely run out of room to build more in the busiest urban areas -- it would be difficult for Manhattan to get much denser than it already is -- so the solution to fill that demand for pedestrian-centric space is to transform outlying areas, such as suburbs, into walkable places.

It's not impossible. It's already happened in the D.C. metro area, where 70 percent of walkable areas are outside the city core. D.C. has the greatest amount of walkable urban places per capita in the country, Leinberger said. New York's metropolitan area, with our car-crazy suburbs and exurbs, comes in at tenth. By building up these new walkable places, we could kickstart transformative projects to give a major boost to our recession-weary economy over the next few decades, not to mention re-invigorate our collapsed housing market.

Having more walkable places also makes sense on a personal financial level. According to Leinberger's data, car-friendly suburban households spend anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of their income on transportation, whereas urban households spend only about 9 percent. That extra money can go into paying for housing, or even -- as Leinberger puts it -- that most un-American of things: savings.

Article originally appeared on Streetsblog New York City.

Image Credit: Mathew Katz

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It is new American passion. I think that it is a nice project which should be accomplished in an urban area and pedestrian as well as driven-way projects must be completed...

good Blog...

Posted by: packaging usa on 13 Oct 09

I suspect that forceful zoning has caused us to build drivable suburban environments. In older stretches of Toronto, built in the 1920's, I notice that there are corner stores on many corners inside what is an otherwise residential-only neighbourhood. It might be a longer walk to a bank or other "major destinations", but for bread, milk, juice, a newspaper, and other essentials, it was just a trip down to the corner.

I suspect that, over time, local elected representatives were told that nobody wanted to live next to the store, possibly because of traffic concerns. That echoed back into new zoning, along with the wish for backyards of significant size.

My frontage is about 20 feet. In 1960's neighbourhoods, the frontage is closer to 40 feet. To get services within 3000 feet, that limits you to 75 pass-by's. In older neighbourhoods, I could get those services within 2000 feet, even with 100 pass-by's. Those pass-bys mean there is more foot traffic. In many of the newer neighbourhoods, you no longer have sidewalks, either. This is probably not just a cost saving - it's by design. Of course, in Toronto, it also means that nobody needs to shovel their share of the public walk in those areas - one more reason for residents to not want sidewalks.

Finally - don't forget the serious difference in costs between a small neighbourhood corner store, and the giant flat store in it's own neighbourhood-sized space. It's a lot tougher to convince people to shop in their neighbourhood when they lose the selection, AND pay more for exactly the same goods - even possibly paying more after accounting for the cost of driving.

So - let's be clear here. I expect that these neighbourhoods with their long walks were built that way because we wanted the features that they provide.

Finally - I see some potential pitfalls in suggesting that there is significant financial value in walkable neighbourhoods. Simply put - it becomes a documented reason for commercial landlords to raise lease rates. The effect of that can be to force existing local businesses out, but without any plan for replacing the services they offered.

Posted by: Chris S on 13 Oct 09

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