Have you been walking somewhere and suddenly the sidewalk comes to an abrupt end? For me, there is nothing more frustrating—especially when I am walking my kids in a stroller and have no choice but to go into the street with 40 MPH traffic. Walkability (the presence of sidewalks, proximity to amenities, etc.) can impact the way a resident chooses to interact with their environment and ultimately lead to their decision of whether or not to drive their car. If there are sidewalks, we are all more apt to walk to our destination or feel safe walking to transit. As cities continue to grow, city leaders are actively reversing the approach of their predecessors and instead focusing on moving people not (just) cars. The best way to move people efficiently is to offer a broad array of mobility options and almost all transportation options require access via a very basic infrastructure fixture: sidewalks.
Where did all the sidewalks go?
In the United States, many cities never invested in sidewalks once the automobile became a fixture of the American landscape. The proliferation of affordable cars, advancements in homebuilding manufacturing, and geopolitical factors after WWII shifted dollars from cities to suburbs and likewise, auto-centric infrastructure. Basic tenants of street design went out of the window as engineers began looking for ways to get cars moving faster. However, making roads wider to make traffic flow has actually had the effect of inviting more drivers. Compounded with the influx of new city dwellers in the 21st century, congestion has prompted city leaders to push transit and enable more short-distance trips by foot.
It seems obvious, but a walkable street network can influence both mental and physical health. According to the University of Kansas’ Alzheimer’s Disease Center, they can even have an impact on mental health. Psychologist Amber Watt found that people who lived in areas with a higher connected street index performed better on a baseline cognitive tests. Her research team also noted fewer drops in attention and verbal memory of people who walked regularly in a navigable street network citing, “Complex environments may require more complex mental processes to navigate. Our findings suggest that people with neighborhoods that require more mental complexity actually experience less decline in their mental functioning over time.”
Additionally, walking as part of daily activity is a fundamental component of maintaining physical health. The American Heart Association reports that walking at least 30 minutes a day can help you reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and improve your blood pressure. A study by the American Cancer Society found that women who walked seven or more hours a week compared to those who walked three or fewer had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer. Wearable fitness devices recommend people take at least 10,000 steps in a day. However, most Americans only reach half of that number. In a country that spends $190 billion on treatments for obesity-related diseases annually, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure improvements promise a net reduction in healthcare cost and increased quality of life.
One movement known as Complete Streets focuses on retro-fitting existing auto-only lanes to include bike lanes, sidewalks, and street trees. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “Complete streets are those designed and operated to enable safe access and travel for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, transit users, and travelers of all ages and abilities will be able to move along the street network safely.” After all, to safely get to our cars, transit, bikes, carshare, and rideshare pickups, we need sidewalks.
A second, event-focused approach known as the Open Streets initiative, seeks to promote community engagement through activating neighborhood streets and calling attention to adaptive ways to use existing infrastructure. During Open Streets events, roads close for the community to stroll, ride their bikes, dance, and mingle. Today there are more than 100 documented Open Street initiatives in North America that have been successful in attracting thousands of families to visit businesses and fuel local economies with net new foot traffic.
Government and private funds spent to increase walkability have a proven record of a strong return on investment. Research shows that each one-point increase in a home’s Walk Score (a 100-point scale measuring an address’s convenience to walkable destinations) is associated with a $700 to $3,000 increase in value compared to less walkable homes of similar size. A study by the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries and Walk Score confirmed that walkability correlates with a higher value for all types of properties. Retailers and restaurants in walkable areas are more desirable and reap the economic benefits.
If city leaders want to diversify their cities’ transportation portfolio and boost their bottom lines, they should start with investing in sidewalks. Doing so will re-activate the street, foster healthy living, and provide a strong return on investment that will directly increase the viability of all other mobility options.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.