In most major cities within the United States, car transportation is simply not a feasible way to regularly get around the urban core. Even people who live in the suburbs or rural areas and commute in would rather find a different mode of transportation into and around the densely populated city center. But public transit has plenty of issues -- especially lately with COVID-19 throwing a harsh spotlight on the dangers of poor hygiene in high-touch spots. Which brings up the question:
Is it time to reconsider walkable communities?
The questions that need answering
Can people in different demographics and life stages condense their work, play, and personal activity into a geographical area they can navigate as pedestrians? Will the traditional American dream of personal space and a white picket fence eventually become obsolete as people seek a lower carbon footprint and a less isolated lifestyle
"Affordable housing in urban centers is an ongoing problem," says Brad Padden of Housing Diversity Corporation, a Seattle-based developer who specializes in medium-income multifamily housing. "In order to support the economic diversity and vibrancy of neighborhoods, we must continue to build for density."
But a key part of building for density involves making space by reducing parking, which means people must either take mass transit, ride-share, or walk to where they want to go. And with COVID-19 having exposed the danger of high-touch surfaces and enclosed areas, many people feel that public transit is too risky, which means folks without cars need to get everything from within their walkable communities or the surrounding areas that can be navigated as a pedestrian. It puts a new, sharper focus on neighborhoods.
Ideal residents for walkable communities
"Core urban neighborhoods are very walkable, bikeable, scootable (i.e., navigable with electric scooters)," says Padden, "so I expect an increase in popularity for those alternative transportation methods."
That means people who are fit and brave enough to ride bikes and scooters around city centers are the people best suited to live there. This will generally be younger adults and couples without young children, since few middle-aged people and parents would consider scooters an acceptable form of day-to-day transportation.
While older adults around retirement age may not be up for biking or scooting, they do often enjoy walking. And they don’t necessarily need to venture out within the city to experience new things. As routine and consistency become important, trying a new restaurant across town doesn’t necessarily spark the desire to travel 10 miles on a regular night -- not by car, train, cycle, or on foot. For these people, walkable communities that suit their income bracket may be very appealing, even if they wouldn’t necessarily walk around the big city on a regular basis.
Who is not a candidate for walkable-community living?
People who need lots of privacy and space -- for their family to interact, for professional reasons, or for psychological ones -- may not be ideal candidates to live in a walkable community. Even though they may enjoy visiting it, the setup may not be right for their situation. They may want a better school for their kids, or to be surrounded by a greater variety and quality of extracurricular programs, or to have more outdoor space, or more space for their personal belongings. For all of these reasons and many others, families are the first and biggest group to move away from walkable communities.
Another unfortunate fact is that seniors and people with mobility issues or other health problems may not be able to live in a walkable community even though they’d like to because they simply might not be able to walk enough. For someone who can only walk 100 feet, living in a place where only 75% of their needs can be accomplished on foot is not feasible -- unless they can arrange the logistics for the other 25%.
Because there’s no need for a car, walkable communities make sense for people who want to save money on a car payment and insurance. However, the other reason that people may want to move into a walkable community, regardless of whether they can afford to keep a car, has to do with combating isolation. Among the "aging in place" contingent of Boomers and octogenarians, some struggle mightily with feeling alone and cut off from society. For them, a slower-paced walkable community may be the ideal way to downsize.
Walkable communities work for those committed to car-free life
The modern housing dichotomy of jam-packed, claustrophobicurban core versus spread-out suburbia evolves in a pendulum fashion: Urban centers become too expensive and people move to bedroom communities, or they become too run down and people move to more pleasant neighborhoods. Then redevelopment occurs, and suddenly the urban center is hot again because of convenience and community. Up until the pandemic, planners and city officials felt that public transit proximity plus walkability added up to the perfect car-free living situation. Now, public transit is suddenly a risk, so walkability has to shine on its own -- and in some places, it does.