Making Cities More Walkable

While gas-thirsty cars are languishing in the garage, people are hopping on buses, riding bikes, and reverting to the most time-tested form of transportation: their feet. Alex Chadwick talks to Christopher Leinberger, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, about why urban planners are paying more attention to cities' "walkability."

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

If you can't take the subway or a bus, try walking. Easier in some places than others, of course. A study by a Seattle software firm ranks America's most walkable neighborhoods. San Francisco, New York and Boston lead the top ten. Los Angeles is number nine, right above Portland, Oregon. Chris Leinberger is a land-use strategist who advised on the study. Walkability, a new term for me, is a simple concept, he says.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER LEINBERGER (Land-use Strategist, Brookings Institution): It's where you can get your daily needs met within walking distance. And walking distance is generally considered to be about a half-mile, 3,000 feet. And if you live within that kind of a district, you will probably be using your feet a whole lot more than you're using your car.

CHADWICK: And what is it that makes that district walkable? What's there?

Mr. LEINBERGER: You'll find at least a grocery store that can service you on a daily basis, a hardware store, drugstore, restaurants, maybe your kids can walk to school. And, in the best of all possible worlds, you can walk to work.

CHADWICK: So, this walkability index, how long has that been around? How long have people been studying that?

Mr. LEINBERGER: Well, we've been studying it for many, many years. But it's only been the last 15 years that there's been market demand.

CHADWICK: You know, on this list of the most walkable cities, I find San Francisco at the top. But if you walk around San Francisco, boy, that's a very hilly place, isn't it?

Mr. LEINBERGER: This walk score does not take that into account. There are still issues that need to be addressed to refine this system. So, you know, it doesn't take into account the fact that on a summer day in Phoenix, most people wouldn't want to be walking outside.

CHADWICK: Right.

Mr. LEINBERGER: And the same goes for bodies of water, the same goes for highways that may, you know, freeways, that may be stopping you from walking a very short distance. But you can't get from here to there because of a freeway.

CHADWICK: I, something on this list puzzles me. Los Angeles is more walkable than Portland, Oregon? Portland is famous for its high self-regard about people's ability to get around that city in a humane way.

Mr. LEINBERGER: Well, Los Angeles is, believe it or not, one of the most dense cities in the country. While it's not been planned to be walkable, there are historical relics of walkability in the city of Los Angeles. And the development over the last ten years has increased its walkability. And, finally, what you've done in southern California in general, but Los Angeles in particular, is that you are beginning to put back in your rail transit system.

CHADWICK: Chris, you're a land-use strategist. You consult with developers, you've worked as a developer in your past. How is the price of gas changing the way developers are thinking, and maybe boosting this walkability idea?

Mr. LEINBERGER: It is accelerating an underlying market trend. My research shows, others' research shows that anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of households want to live in a walkable urban place. In most metropolitan areas, it's no more than five or ten percent supply. So you've got this high demand and low supply, and prices go out of sight, which is what we've seen throughout the country and great concern about gentrification.

CHADWICK: Chris Leinberger, he's a land-use strategist currently at the Brookings Institution. His book on urban development, "The Option of Urbanism," was published this year. Chris Leinberger, thank you.

Mr. LEINBERGER: Thank you very much.

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