I would have thought these truths to be self-evident; that the easier it is to walk, the more people do. If you live within walking distance of a shopping district, you are going to tend to walk there. But nonetheless, somebody had to study it, and Kaid Benfield at NRDC points to research in California that proves that indeed, people who live in more traditionally designed, walkable communities do walk more. Kaid writes:
New research from Southern California has found that residents of neighborhoods with a central core of shops and services – a pattern typically found in older, traditional communities – walk nearly three times more often than do residents of neighborhoods whose nearest shops and services lie along a major arterial roadway – a pattern typically found in newer suburban development. Residents of traditionally styled and centered neighborhoods also drive less than their counterparts residing in the newer pattern.
But there is more in the study that meets the headline writer's eye. Forgive the big blockquote from Retrofitting the Suburbs to Increase Walking:
Looking further, we compared actual retail sales with estimates of local retail demand for both the resident and employee populations of the area to assess whether walkable neighborhoods have commercial concentrations that serve the local population or whether those neighborhoods must also import customers from other places. We find that retail sales in the two centers with the most walking are approximately three to four times as large as what could be supported by the residents and employees in those centers, suggesting that pedestrian-oriented centers require a concentration of business activity larger than the local residents can support. Thus people must drive from outside of the neighborhood to support the commercial activity that in turn encourages local residents to walk more. Therefore, business densities that reduce driving within the neighborhood also require some driving from outside of the neighborhood, implying that policy must focus not just on small and dense village centers but on knitting these together in larger transportation networks.
Before Walmart and the big box stores, pretty much everybody shopped locally. Now, with our big fridges and minivans, people head off to the power center for the staples, and there is not enough demand from people within walking distance to actually keep the stores in business. So we not only have to make our shopping streets better for walking, but also better for transit and, dare I admit it, driving.
I recall, a few years back, that all the retailers along Toronto's St. Clair Avenue had signs protesting the proposed dedicated right of way for the streetcars. They thought that the resulting reduction in parking spaces would kill their businesses. The overlong construction period hurt them badly. But an interesting thing happened once the new line opened; the number of people using the line increased; property values within walking distance went way up, dozens of new stores opened, and there are about half a dozen new condominium buildings under construction and more proposed.
The eye-opener in the study is the recognition that for main street retail to work, one needs a reasonable density, but also good connections to make it viable, to bring people in from a wider catchment area. I have seen what happens when there is an investment in infrastructure and connections, and it is very true.