With the birth of the automobile came suburban sprawl, but today, there’s an increasing movement toward more walkable cities.
“I think people would rather not be in their cars,” said Jim Chrisman, senior vice president of development at Stapleton, a highly walkable neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. “There are plenty of cities that are very walkable , but they’re not always pedestrian-friendly. If you can make it pleasant, that’s a place people will want to go.”
So what makes a city walkable?
“Typically, there is a center, whether that’s a main street or commercial strip. There tend to be enough people living in an area for businesses to flourish. Public transit runs frequently , and typically you’ll find parks and a lot of open public spaces,” said Josh Herst, CEO of WalkScore, a site that analyzes cities for their walkability.
Plus, there need to be a lot of corners and shorter blocks, which inherently feel more walkable than longer blocks.
“People won’t walk past blank spaces!” said Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, which studies land use in urban areas.
Walkable cities not only feel safer, but they promote exercise and health and they’re very social as you’re constantly running into neighbors.
Every house in Stapleton has a front porch and the garages are out back, plus there are pocket parks, public pools and other shared amenities. “It’s about connecting people, not just connecting to places,” said Heidi Majerik, a director of development for Stapleton who also happens to live there.
Not only is it social, but it’s also green. They have a “Stapleton Moms” group online, where parents can plan things like a block Easter egg hunt, exchange of old baby clothes and gear – or even borrow a grown-up dress for a formal event from another mom!
Plus, there are economic benefits. You wouldn’t spend much time hanging around in the parking lot of a strip mall in a car-dependent suburb. But, you would linger in a very walkable city, which means you’re more inclined to spend more.
Quite a bit more, in fact. The Urban Land Institute studied two Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, one walkable and one not. They found that the Barnes & Noble book store in the walkable suburb made 20 percent more in profits than the one in the driving-dependent suburb.
“We call that a place-making dividend,” McMahon said. “People stay longer and come back more often and spend more money in places that attract their affection.”
There’s an economic benefit for homeowners, too: Homes in walkable cities hold their value better than those that were heavily reliant on driving, according to Smart Growth America, a group that promotes “smart growth” instead of suburban sprawl.
Walkable cities have always been desirable. But $4-a-gallon gasoline has only increased their appeal. In a recent poll from the National Association of Realtors, half of the respondents said they would prefer to live in a neighborhood that had a mix of shops, housing and businesses as opposed to just a straight residential neighborhood.
Builders are heeding the call: In a survey in the Mid-Atlantic area last year, six out of 10 builders said they are moving away from building big homes and focusing on more walkable neighborhoods.
We asked Bert Sperling of BestPlaces.netto take a look at the top metropolitan areas and find the most walkable cities. The criteria included everything from walking trails to mass transit (and the connections between the two), plus parks, schools, dog parks and more.
Here are the 10 most walkable cities in America.
By Cindy Perman
19 April 2011
Population: 2.14 million
% commute by walking: 2.8%
% commute by mass transit: 5.9%
Average commute: 25.3 minutes
Number of parks: 39.5
The Portland metro area has density, where things are close together, and the current development is aimed at maintain that density. “It’s a very walkable city,” said Sperling, who lives in Portland. Plus, there’s ongoing expansion of bike paths, light rail and a trolley system. And, it has one of the highest number of dog parks on the top 10 list, with 25.
It is estimated that Portland residents travel 20 percent fewer miles for their commute each day than the national average, for a total savings per year of more than $2 billion.
Population: 1.62 million
% commute by walking: 3.2%
% commute by mass transit: 2.5%
Average commute: 22.3 minutes
Number of parks: 54.2
“Providence is going through a real rebirth,” Sperling said. The Providence metro area has a strong downtown core, with good hiking trails and a lot of schools within walking distance. A lot of people walk to work and crime is low — one of the lowest on the list, Sperling said.
Population: 7.9 million
% commute by walking: 3.2%
% commute by mass transit: 12.8%
Average commute: 33.7 minutes
Number of parks: 160
“Chicago is a sort of an East Coast city with a West Coast feel,” Sperling said. The Chicago metro area has density, with “wonderful neighborhoods and a great mass transit system,” he said, which is evident by the fact that nearly 13% of the population gets to work by mass transit. Plus, the city is putting in new parks and plazas to encourage even more walking. The city has 492 miles of former railroad lines that have been converted to footpaths, known as "rails to trails," and 160 parks, the second highest on the list.
Population: 3.9 million
% commute by walking: 4.5%
% commute by mass transit: 12.1%
Average commute: 30.6 minutes
Number of parks: 36
Philadelphia is an older city but it’s making a comeback. “A lot of people are rediscovering it,” Sperling said. “They’re calling it the “sixth borough” (of New York)” as more artists get pushed out of New York. So, they move to Philadelphia and travel to New York a few days a week, he noted. But its age is one of the things that makes it attractive. “It’s got great bones!” Sperling said.
% commute by walking: 5.4%
% commute by mass transit: 8.3%
Average commute: 30.5 minutes
Number of parks: 46
“Honolulu isn’t the kind of city you think of as walkable, but it has a lot going for it,” Sperling said. Great neighborhoods, great transit — and, of course, the sun and surf. “It’s great for walking, hiking and sea breezes,” Sperling said.It has one of the highest percentage of residents who walk to work on the list at 5.4%.
Population: 4.2 million
% commute by walking: 3.1%
% commute by mass transit: 11.3%
Average commute: 35.9 minutes
Number of parks: 102
“Washington, DC was designed to have a great downtown,” Sperling said. “Lots of people in brownstones. Walkable. Great mass transit system.” The Washington metro area has 232 miles of rails to trails, one of the highest on the list. There are 102 parks, and they love their dogs in DC — 39 dog parks.
Smart Growth America CEO Geoff Anderson, who’s based in Washington, DC, said his favorite place to walk is DuPont Circle, a historic district in northwest DC, that is mixed-use residential and commercial. It’s home to several embassies, think tanks and the nation’s first modern art museum.
Population: 2.5 million
% commute by walking: 3.2%
% commute by mass transit: 7.9%
Average commute: 30.1 minutes
Number of parks: 23
Seattle is a very dense city, which makes it very walkable. It’s bordered by the Puget Sound on one side and Lake Washington on two other sides. “People really care about the outdoors here,” Sperling noted. “It’s the home of REI. There are a lot of hiking trails.” The Seattle metro area has 298 miles of rails-to-trails, the highest on the list.
“It’s a real culture to get out and enjoy oneself,” Sperling said.
Population: 11.5 million
% commute by walking: 8.4%
% commute by mass transit: 42.4%
Average commute: 38 minutes
Number of parks: 242
“New York is like a whole bunch of small towns,” Anderson said, which makes it easy and interesting to walk around. Not just for the big attractions but for the density of the neighborhoods with a wide array of food, shopping and entertainment options. More than 42 percent of workers in the NY metro area commute via mass transit, the highest on the list.
And, while you might not associate New York as a hiking city, there are a surprising number of trails on the New Jersey side. All in all, the NY metro area has 242 parks and 158 miles of rails-to-trails (like the High Lineon Manhattan's west side, pictured left). And, New Yorkers love their dogs — there are 51 dog parks in the metro area, the most on the list.
Population: 3.2 million
% commute by walking: 5%
% commute by mass transit: 12.5%
Average commute: 31 minutes
Number of parks: 29
Boston is a very dense, very attractive city that not only has a lot of food, shopping and entertainment but also 117 trails and 29 parks. It’s got a great mass transit system that shows in the numbers — 12.5 percent of its residents commute via mass transit.
The Boston metro area includes Cambridge, a densely mixed-use area that is home to both Harvard and MIT. “Cambridge is the real jewel,” Sperling said.
Population: 1.7 million
% commute by walking: 5.7%
% commute by mass transit: 18.2%
Average commute: 34.1 minutes
Number of parks: 71.4
And the No. 1 most walkable city is ... San Francisco!
San Francisco, like Seattle, is constrained by water, which helps maintain its density, and therefore walkability. There’s a great mix of businesses downtown and it has a great mass-transit system with a wide reach. And that’s evident in the numbers: More than 18 percent of residents in the San Francisco metro areause mass transit for their commute, one of the highest on the list. It has 326 trails, the highest on the list, and 26 dog parks, the second highest on the list, behind Washington, DC.
“What’s also interesting is that places like San Francisco aren’t just resting on their laurels, but they’re developing a lot of new projects,” Sperling said.