Walkable neighborhoods surge ahead

By Robbie Webber

While many Americans are currently discouraged from walking because their neighborhoods are not built for travel by foot, communities that facilitate walking may be the future of new development.

A survey by GfK Research for Kaiser Permanente shows that over 90 percent of Americans understand that walking is a healthy activity, and they know they and their children should walk more, but most are not walking enough to get the health benefits. At the same time, a study of development from the Atlanta Regional Commission and George Washington University found that walkable neighborhoods are attracting the majority of new development in Metro Atlanta, which the author describes as “the poster-child of sprawl.”

According to the health survey, the design and infrastructure of communities are barriers to walking more. Forty percent of respondents describe their neighborhood as “not very” or “not at all” walkable. Living in communities where services, shops, school, and work are not easily reached by foot means that walking cannot be part of normal daily travel and errands, making it harder to squeeze walking into a busy routine. Lack of sidewalks, drivers that use the phone, and speeding were listed among the concerns that keep people from walking.

Other results from the survey show that even children are not getting physical activity via active transportation. Of school-aged children living within one mile of their school, only 8 percent walked to school and 2 percent biked. The survey results were released during the 2013 Walking Summit in Washington, DC, just a week before Walk and Bike to School Day.

“These survey results show that walkable environments are key to encouraging people to walk more,” said Raymond J. Baxter, PhD, Kaiser Permanente’s Senior Vice President for Community Benefit, Research, and Health Policy.

Even for the 60 percent of respondents that rated their neighborhood walkable, most do not consider walkability when choosing a home. However, those who live in more walkable neighborhoods and have schools, services, and shopping easily accessible by foot do indeed walk more.

But a George Washington University School of Business researcher notes that more people and businesses are seeking out walkable communities. Christopher Leinberger found that walkable communities are attracting an increasing share of development, even in the car-oriented Atlanta region. Since 2009, 60 percent of new office, retail, and rental properties in Atlanta have been built in what Leinberger calls “walkable urban places”—those neighborhoods already blessed by high Walk Scores or on their way there. This is up from roughly 13 percent of such investment from 1992 to 2000 and 26 percent from 2001 to 2008.

In addition to simply capturing more new development, walkable neighborhoods also showed a price premium for rent on all types of property, signaling that the demand is shifting to these types of communities. Leinberger previously studied the real estate market in Washington, DC, and found similar results.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.