Walkability Is Great, but Don’t Lose Sight of Transit

5.30.2012 | Walkability–it’s becoming a buzz word.  NPR, the Huffington Post, Atlantic Cities, and many others all have something to say about the joys of being able to walk to a restaurant, school, work, or the gym. We might add “bikability” to the buzz. As we wrote last week, bike-sharing is inching its way into American cities. Most recently, David Byrne waxed lyrical about the joys of bike-sharing in Sunday’s New York Times. Worth a read.

Of course, his daughter Malu followed with another side of these walkable cities: affordability. 

In “Running for Our Creative Lives,” she writes how she and her artist friends are being pushed out of cities like New York altogether.

As Malu reveals, except for the elite, affordability will always trump walkability when people make decisions about where to live. Yet moving farther afield comes with its own costs. No one today can overlook the costs of driving as gas prices hover at $4 a gallon  in our affordability calculations. While moving farther afield may come with lower rents or housing prices, it also comes with commuting and time costs.

Several years ago, I edited a report for the Brookings Institution and the Urban Markets Initiative on the true price of living in the suburbs. Although people argue that they can often get “bang for the buck,” with ample room, big lawns, and “space” in the far-flung suburbs, the Brookings/Urban Markets study finds that the real costs are often hidden. Tally up the gas costs, time, and other factors of driving to and fro all (and particularly to and fro to jobs), and the affordability question looks different. The resulting  Affordability Index” tool helps us factor in these costs when considering whether and where to move.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has another take on this project, and  watch a presentation by the lead researchers at the Center for Transit-Oriented Development and the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

We might be seeing signs that people are beginning to realize these costs. RE:Think, CEO for Cities blog, reports that sprawl may be slowing. “The annual rate of growth in American cities and surrounding urban areas, they write, has now surpassed that of exurbs for the first time in the last twenty years.” They and others attribute this slowing growth in the far-flung burbs to the cost of gas for those long commutes. Their report, “Driven to the Brink,” shows that these costs are reshaping the American housing market.

Malu’s article raises an important issue: is “walkability” another word for gentrification? Without smart transit, it just might be.

Paying more than 30% for housing costs is a strain, according to affordability experts. Far too many families are paying upwards of 50% for their housing (including utilities). Cities may be walkable, but they also must remain affordable–for everyone. The same quality of life that urbanites are seeking when they scour walkability scores and coffee houses and craft breweries per block often pushes other families out of the cities, farther from their jobs. We must be vigilant in our pursuit of quality of life so that we don’t blindly create another set of problems for an increasingly vulnerable (and growing) set of families.

One way to ensure that affordability, walkability, and quality of life issues coexist is to also support public transit. Without it, too many families will be pushed out of cities to suburbs that demand a car, or two. (See our post on poverty in the suburbs.) Without combining transit, walkability, bikeability into a true choice of where to live, we will risk further burdening already vulnerable families.


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