If you grew up in a big city like New York, it’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that you learned how to navigate the city via mass transit before you ever sat behind the wheel of a car. Cities, by their very nature, are often easily walkable; the average resident might walk to their local grocery store, to the movies, to the museum, you name it. In New York, it’s pretty likely that you can get there from here without ever setting foot inside a car.
But historically, anyway, American cities have lagged behind their European cousins when it comes to walkability. Indeed, only the densest of American metropolitan areas have a reputation for comprehensive mass transit systems and ease of walkability. It won’t surprise many to hear that New York, or Chicago are great cities for going car-less; but what about the rest of America’s metropolises? Further, why should we care how “walkable” our cities are?
Well, for one, American cities are growing, and rapidly, which means that even sprawling metropolises like Los Angeles or Las Vegas will need to re-think the way they approach their growth. According to a 2010 U.S. Census, 80.7% of the American population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to continue to rise in the next few decades, with experts at the World Health Organization predicting that by 2030 6 out of every 10 people will be living in cities. By 2050, that number is expected to climb even higher, up to 7 out of every 10 people.
America’s cities are changing in more ways than just population growth — however, and as climate change continues to have a worsening effect on the world around us, it is increasingly important that the places where we live are easily navigable without a car. Some American metropolitan areas are already fairly easy to navigate without a car, while many others suffer from sprawling suburbs, are poorly integrated, and require long commutes, often in heavy traffic.
In recent years, urban planning experts have put a new emphasis on diverse, multi-use urban spaces which allow an increased level of walkability. In this article, we explore the results of a recent study conducted by the Georgetown School of Business in partnership with Smart Growth America, which ranked the top 30 U.S. metropolises in order from most walkable to least based on a number of criteria, including the city’s office and retail space, walkability score (via WalkScore.com), availability of rail transit, per capita GDP, as well as population data.
The study defines a “walkable urban area,” or WalkUP as “characterized by much higher density and a mix of diverse real estate types, connected to surrounding areas via multiple transportation options, such as bus and rail, bike routes, and motor vehicles. For those living or visiting a walkable urban place, everyday destinations such as home, work, school, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.”
Some of the study’s results may surprise you. Sure, all of the hyper urban areas you’d expect are there — New York, for instance, but many aren’t quite as pedestrian friendly as you might initially imagine, and still other, smaller metropolises take some of the ranking’s highest spots. Still more intriguingly, the study predicted future rankings of the same 30 metropolises and found some interesting (and unexpected) trends.
The Windy City’s fifth place ranking may come as a surprise to some readers, since the midwest metropolis is known for its walkability, but according to the study, published by the Georgetown University School of Business, Chicago ranks low when it comes to population per walkable urban place (WalkUP.) That is, the city has many walkable areas, but they don’t tend to be highly populated areas.
According to the Georgetown study, Chicago has nearly 40 highly walkable places each of which houses about 224,000 people. Though Chicago ranks a bit lower on the list with regards to the number of walkable places per capita, more than 90% of the central city has walkable office and retail space, and the city’s walkable places account for nearly a third of Chicago’s overall land area.
A similar ranking of walkable cities from Good Housekeeping based solely on an algorithm ranks Chicago 4th and gives the city a “walk score” of 74 out of 100. Good Housekeeping also notes that some of the Windy City’s most pedestrian friendly neighborhoods include Printers Row, Near North, and Sheridan Park.
4. San Francisco
San Francisco has a plethora of walkable spaces, totaling nearly 60 throughout the city. It houses about 128,000 people per walkable place and, like Chicago, San Francisco’s walkable places account for about a third of the city’s total land area. Unlike Chicago, however, San Francisco ranks 3rd when it comes to population per walkable place; in other words, more of its residents actually live in the city’s easily accessible areas. Further, about 83% of the central city’s retail and office space exists in a walkable environment, the study found.
Good Housekeeping’s rankings peg San Francisco as the 2nd most walkable city in the country with a walk score of 85 for it’s most walkable neighborhoods: Chinatown, the Financial District, and Tenderloin. WalkScore.com, the website which developed the ranking system, also found that San Francisco ranks 2nd (coming in just after Portland, Oregon) among the top 5 most bike friendly cities in the U.S.
Historic Boston, Massachusetts might not be the first city readers think of when they imagine an inherently walkable metro area, but Boston’s increasing integration of its suburbs (particularly Cambridge) have allowed this city to claim one of the top spots on our list, and the Georgetown study adds that Beantown is likely to stay there, too. The city has made moves to increase the walkability of the metro area overall by better connecting its suburbs to the city’s more urban areas.
According to the Georgetown study, though Boston is smaller in size and land area than some other metro areas on our list, the city still boasts nearly 40 highly walkable places, and more than 65% of the central city’s retail and office space is in a walkable environment. The study adds that more than a third of the city’s land area qualifies as a WalkUP.
Good Housekeeping’s rankings gave Boston a “walk score” of 79 out of 100, where it also ranked third, and noted that the city’s most walkable neighborhoods are Haymarket, Bay Village, and Chinatown. WalkScore.com also found that Boston was among the top 5 most bike friendly cities in the country.
2. New York
Some readers may be surprised to see New York in our second place spot, but the Big Apple, while easily walkable on the island of Manhattan, had points docked due to its outer boroughs. New York’s suburbs, the report says, aren’t nearly as walkable as the City proper.
“Though New York has a well-deserved reputation for walkability, that reputation is based mainly on New York City proper, and especially Manhattan — an island that makes up only 8% of the metro region’s 22 million people and 0.3% of land area. More than 89% of New York City’s walkable urban office and retail is located within New York City’s limits, and especially Manhattan.”
Good Housekeeping’s ranking puts New York City at the top of its list, though the report only takes into account the city proper rather than the larger metropolitan area. According to the Good Housekeeping rankings, New York City boasts an impressive walk score of 89 out of 100, and it’s most walkable neighborhoods are Little Italy, SoHo, and the Flatiron District.
The Georgetown study notes, however, that both metro New York and Chicago have a lot of potential opportunities to better integrate and urbanize their suburbs. “Drive-able sub-urban development continues to dominate the suburbs of these two metros.” The study adds that in order to improve their walkability, both New York and Chicago will have to make better use of its rail systems, noting that “many suburban stations are surrounded by acres of surface parking lots.”
The study also notes that particularly in New York and Chicago, overhauling the suburbs to become more integrated will require a cultural shift as well, as many people in the suburbs take a NIMBY, or “Not In My Back Yard,” approach to urbanizing the metro areas’ suburban areas, despite the fact that it “hampers economic growth and limits market choice in these metros.”
1. Washington D.C.
Our first choice for most walkable city may surprise many readers, but the Georgetown study notes that Washington D.C. is unique in that it “not only has the most office and retail in WalkUPs, but also has the most balanced distribution of walkable urban space between the central city and the suburbs.”
The study also notes that Washington D.C.’s Metrorail has continued to expand aggressively over the past 40 years, with 29 separate expansions in that time period, far more than either Atlanta’s MARTA or San Francisco’s BART systems, both of which originated around the same time period (the MARTA, BART, and Metrorail systems were all originally put in place in the 1970s.)
It’s also important to note that not only are Washington D.C.’s Metrorail lines expanding, the city has also made it a priority to improve the systems operational performance, after the system saw a decline in reliability over the past two decades.
D.C.’s top notch walkability rating is consistent with previous studies, as well. An earlier Brookings Institute study published in 2007 found that the Washington D.C. metro area was the most walkable out of the top 30 metropolitan areas in the country, and the city retains that distinction today.
The study does warn, however, that Washington D.C.’s WalkUPs are likely reaching a plateau, meaning that the city may soon be overtaken by its competitors in the near future, especially as cities which didn’t make the cut begin to enact plans to encourage other forms of transportation.
Good Housekeeping’s rankings of walkable cities pegs Washington D.C. much lower on the list; D.C. was ranked 7th and given a walk score of just 73. The magazine notes that the capital city’s most walkable neighborhoods include Dupont Circle, the West End and Downtown.
Honorable mention: Seattle
The study’s honorable mention goes to Seattle, which ranked sixth, while Portland, Oregon ranked top of the study’s “Moderately Walkable” tier, followed by Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Denver. Meanwhile, Phoenix, Arizona and Orlando, Florida came in last; both cities ranked very low on the study’s measurements of walkability.
Perhaps most interestingly, the Georgetown University study also predicted future rankings for the same 30 metropolitan areas, which yielded some particularly surprising results. Miami, for instance, is predicted to become one of the top 10 most walkable cities in the U.S. in the near future, while Boston is poised to rise to the top of the pack. Other surprises include Atlanta, Detroit, and Denver, all of which, the study predicted, will make it onto the ranking’s top tier of “high walkable urbanism.” New York, meanwhile, is predicted to slide yet another ranking to replace Boston at number 3.