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A new report ranks cities’ “walkability,” naming some familiar urban centers as the best for living without a car. But a few surprising cities are seeing real improvements.
In the mid 1900s, a combination of low-density development, the segregation of residential and business construction, and the rise of cars as the predominant mode of transportation created a now familiar urban landscape pattern: sprawl.
But in the past two decades, urban resurgence has brought millions of new residents to cities. Many of them want to live in highly walkable areas where they can buy groceries, get to work, eat at restaurants, go to school, and shop—all without needing a car.
A new report using data from 2018 found 761 walkable urban places, referred to as walkUPs, in the country’s 30 largest metropolitan areas, and defined them as a high-density area with a mixture of office, retail, and rental multi-family construction that has a walk score at or above 70. The walk score was calculated by giving points based on the distance to various amenities, with the most points going to those within a five-minute walk.
Published jointly by Smart Growth America and George Washington University, the report emphasizes that while walkUPs occupy a miniscule portion of total land in the country’s metropolitan areas—only .17%—they often define regions’ sense of place and deliver outsized economic performance.
The top-scoring cities are a mixture of expected large metros and one surprising up-and-comer. The metro areas with the most walkUps proportional to the size of the metro as a whole were New York City, Denver, Boston, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area, and Chicago. Those six metros together contain 375 walkUPs, almost half of all those in the country. The distribution of walkups looks different in each metro area, with New York and Chicago concentrating them within the central city, while Boston and D.C. built a significant portion of their walkUPs in close suburbs.
Denver, second only to New York City, is on the list because of the city’s recent walkable urban infrastructure investment boom and a massive investment in rail transit. Mark Falcone, the founder of a Denver real estate development firm, said that walkUps are exactly “where the large, highest quality institutional capital wants to be” now. Steve Davis, of Smart Growth America, agreed. “There are massive potential benefits for both governments and businesses in meeting the pent up demand for walkable neighborhoods,” he said.
But those benefits come at huge costs to the people who want to live there. WalkUPs in the top six metro areas had an average rent premium of 119%, meaning tenants in those areas spend over twice what they would pay in a driveable suburban location. Report co-author Christopher Leinberger said that the primary reason for those premiums is due to land prices. “Land prices have gone up so quickly because there is an artificial constraint on walkable urban land,” he said, citing D.C. as an example, where walkUPs can be built on only 2% of land. “So this is a self-inflicted wound, really. The not-in-my-backyard opposition to multifamily housing in walkUPs is causing tremendous damage to low-income households and causing a supply-side issue for housing.”
In the short term, Leinberger suggested cities work aggressively to create affordable housing programs, but in the long term, policy changes will be needed to build walkUPs that are more affordable. Co-author Tracy Hadden Loh suggested that cities also implement anti-displacement policies, like property tax relief for seniors on a fixed income and better protection for tenants, as most walkUPs have a high percentage of renters.
“Supply is artificially regulated by zoning,” she said. “So when we only apply upzoning to communities that are vulnerable to displacement and allow privileged communities to downzone, you create a place where you can’t have the new supply that walkUPs need. It’s not a market issue, but a policy choice.”
The bottom of the rankings show where zoning regulations may have stunted the creation of walkUPs. The metro areas with the fewest proportional number of walkUPs are all located in the Sun Belt, and “exemplify the drivable sub-urban development of the late 20th century,” the report says. Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Orlando, and Tampa all round out the bottom with less than 10% of their office, retail, and multi-family rental units located in walkUPs.
But those cities may not be there for long as the report asserts the demand for walkable neighborhoods is on the rise in “the Rust Belt, the Sun Belt, tech metropolises, government centers, and millennial magnets.”
Cities with the greatest potential for walkUP expansion in the coming years are ranked in the report’s future growth momentum index. Some cities at the top of the list, including Boston (1), New York (2), and D.C. (5), are already amongst those with the most walkUPs, but others, including Detroit (3), Pittsburgh (4), and Miami (6), may join the top-ranking metros soon.
That, the report authors argue, would be a good thing, as they estimate that there is demand for an additional 472 WalkUPs. The construction associated with those, and the growth of existing walkups, would “create a new economic foundation for the U.S. economy, one far more resilient than the economic foundation resulting from building drivable suburbs in the mid- to late-20th century,” the report notes.
WalkUPs may soon be found in every city, as the authors’ analysis indicates that “the highest-ranked walkable urban metros are models for the future development patterns of many, if not most, U.S. metros.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.