Walkability for all, or only those who can afford it?

Walkability has become the new planning buzz word and has been touted as the future of cities. Jeff Speck is a city planner, a firm believer in walkable cities and writer on the subject in his book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.”

Jeff Speck (center) at the 2013 Livable Communities Leadership Award reception at the National Trust for Historic Preservation on May 15, 2013. Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14016848@N00/8744872564/

Jeff Speck (center) at the 2013 Livable Communities Leadership Award reception at the National Trust for Historic Preservation on May 15, 2013.
Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14016848@N00/8744872564/

He believes that fostering a city with a walkable downtown can lead to a smaller environmental impact for the city, more civic involvement, more economic opportunity and better public health.

Jeff Speck spoke at the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership conference in Sun Valley, ID earlier this year. After seeing him present, the Capitol City Development Corporation board, the chamber, and the city of Boise decided to invite him to take a look at Boise to establish where we stand on walkability, and what we could to do further walkability in Boise.

The assessment? “You have what I call ‘good bones’ in your downtown,” Speck said to an audience of about 200 at the Boise Egyptian Theater downtown in June 2013.

What might happen if we make Boise more walkable? A recent study by the University of Melbourne  affirmed the correlation between walkable cities and healthy citizens. Christopher Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo, in conjunction with the Brookings Institute, have a recent study that also affirms the correlation between walkability and the economy.

As a citizen, this all sounds great. But as a planner, we need to remember the saying; we can never do only one thing. By taking a critical look at a few economic studies, we can identify some underlying equity issues that indicate walkability might not be accessible to all.

Looking at the economic analysis done by Mr. Leinberger and Ms. Alfonzo, there are two things in this study that should not go overlooked as they work together hand in hand;

1.)“Residents of places with poor walkability are generally less affluent and have lower educational attainment than places with good walkability.”

2.)”Residents of more walkable places have lower transportation costs and higher transit access, but also higher housing costs.”

It stands to reason, that the less affluent would live in a less walkable area if those that are considered more walkable have higher housing costs.

The case study, which was done in the Washington DC Metropolitan area, indicates that a person who lives in a more walkable area will spend 3% less on transportation, but 12% more on housing than those in places that don’t encourage walkability. What does that look like when you apply actual numbers?

In this same study, they split up the neighborhoods of Washington DC and designated five levels of walkability, with one indicating completely car dependent and five being a neighborhood where you may not need a car at all. If someone were to move from a Level 1 to a Level 2, from completely non-walkable to slightly less non-walkable, they will pay an average of $301.76 more in rent. Moving from a Level 1 to a Level 5? They’re looking at as much as $1200.

Walkability map of Washington DC. Green areas indicate high walkability, whereas red indicates difficult walkability.

Walkability map of Washington DC. Green areas indicate high walkability, whereas red indicates difficult walkability. Image source: http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/Home/29283

High costs of living could severely limit the people who have access to these kinds of neighborhoods, and many of whom are excluded might be exactly those who are demanding them.

Boomers (born 1946-1964) and Gen Y (born 1981-2000) both have shown a preference for small, mixed use neighborhoods with the option of walking to work or to the store. In an article from the Wall Street Journal, S. Mitra Kalita and Robbie Whelan report that 88% of Gen Y wants to live in an urban setting. But the recession may have hit them too hard for them to be able to afford the lifestyle they want.

The Wall Street Journal posted an article in 2009 that indicated the lasting effects of entering the job market during a recession. Not only did new graduates earn less than those who entered the job market with lower rates of unemployment, but their income also grew at a slower rate. This, coupled with Gen Y having the highest student loan debt of any previous generation, means that they move towards the future with much less disposable income than generations before.

As for the Boomers, it is estimated that one in five won’t be able to drive. This means they will have to live either in walkable neighborhoods, close to public transit, or be entirely dependent on others to help them get where they want to go. With many living on fixed incomes, the high price of living in a walkable neighborhood may stop them from living in the areas the market indicates they are demanding.

People gather in downtown Boise for the weekly farmers market. Until recently, the city would block access to downtown streets to allow for the Farmer's Market. Due to construction, it has since been moved toa a parking lot. Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmclean/2559042221/

People gather in downtown Boise for the weekly farmers market. Until recently, the city would block access to downtown streets to allow for the Farmer’s Market. Due to construction, it has since been moved to a parking lot. Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmclean/2559042221/

While the promise of healthy neighbors, economic prosperity, and less time spent commuting sounds great, much needs to be taken into consideration to ensure that walkable neighborhoods do not become accessible to only the most affluent of society. If cities push towards walkability without establishing a way to bring down the costs for housing, they may end up with a supply that doesn’t meet the demand, and portions of the population who are denied access to walkable neighborhoods.

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