Is There a "Fundamental Logic of Walkability"?

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter

Getting people out of cars and rebuilding our main streets is not going to be easy, and cannot be oversimplified.

'Happy City' started as a wonderful book by Charles Montgomery, and now it is a planning consultancy, with Tristan Cleveland writing that Walking is economic growth. He notes that "residents of roughly three-quarters of homes built today can’t get coffee, bread, a haircut, cash, or a newspaper on foot. When we build communities where people can’t get the things they need in a quick walk, we are wasting everyone’s time and money."

Cleveland goes on to suggest that an economy built on walking is economically productive. "The efficiency of every in-person goods transaction depends on two parts: how much it costs to get the product to the store, and how much it costs to get the customer there. Walking to access goods supports economic growth because it costs almost nothing, to the walker or society." He calls walking "economic jet fuel":

People in the United States bought over 80 billion things, in person, in 2016. If people could make a few billion more transactions with a quick walk instead of driving, not only would they save money, but GDP would grow faster and impose fewer costs (like carbon emissions and noise) on society.

It is an attractive argument. I love the idea of a "fundamental logic of walkability." If only it were true.

Coffeescore where I live

Coffeescore where I live in Toronto/Screen capture

I live in a part of a city where I can get coffee, bread, a haircut, cash, or a newspaper on foot, although it is getting hard to find a newspaper. Using Walkscore, I found that I could get coffee at sixteen different places, and it doesn't even include my favourite new one.

But it is not an efficient system. If I were willing to drive an SUV to a big Walmart I could save as much as 30 percent on food. The entire North American supply chain is built on big trucks going to big stores, and customers driving big cars to fill up big fridges. The people who shop at the small local stores are either people like me, who believe in supporting the local hardware or specialty store and are willing to pay significantly more for the privilege, or the poor who cannot afford cars and have no choice.

Tristan Cleveland does point out that cars are expensive in time and money, and that the $9,000 that the average person pays to own a car would pay for a lot of food. I also believe that he is correct about walkability being critical for the fiscal health of cities.

Bloor Street in Toronto is full of stuff

It's hard to walk on Toronto's Bloor Street for all the stuff there/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But it is so complex, building a walkable city that works.

  • We need higher average densities to have enough people to actually support small shops.
  • We need a fairer tax structure that doesn't shift so much of property tax burden onto the commercial sector, making Main Street stores so expensive.
  • We need better pedestrian infrastructure so that people in wheelchairs, with buggies and with strollers can actually all get down the street.
  • We need to stop the subsidies on highways and fuel that support the suburban big box economic models.
  • We have to charge car owners the true economic costs of maintaining the roads, police, ambulances and parking because even when the store is less than a mile away, it is still often easier to drive. If the car is there, people are going to use it.

Then there will be some logic to walkability. Right now, for many, it makes more sense to drive.