3 Ways Walkability and Bikeability Help Neighborhoods Thrive

Walkability is in demand, and it’s easy to see why. Pedestrian fatalities prove the dangers of development that privileges automobile traffic over that of pedestrians and bikers. Walkable, bikeable neighborhoods are better for the environment, and allow people to reach most of their everyday destinations in five to ten minutes, no driving required.

We believe that the benefits of walkable urbanism don’t stop there. What other benefits of walkability and bikeability can you identify? Today, we’re taking a closer look at how walkability and bikeability impact community life and contribute to thriving local businesses.

Have you experienced these benefits of walkability in your own community?

Foot Traffic Helps Small Businesses Thrive

Better walkability and bikeability increase retail traffic and sales: according to the Toronto Clean Air Partnership, “patrons of retail businesses who arrive by foot and bicycle in a neighborhood shopping area visit the most often and spend the most money per month.”

When you think about it, these findings aren’t surprising. Someone who can pop into a brick-and-mortar store on their walk home from work is more likely to do their shopping there than someone who has to choose between driving half an hour to a shop or ordering online. And, indeed, “in Los Angeles, walkable, densely-built shopping districts saw retail activity up to 4 times greater than strip shopping areas.”

When our cities and towns put pedestrians first, local businesses prosper. Even small changes can make a big difference. In New York City, protected bike lanes have been “tied to a 49 percent increase in retail sales” and “small expansions of pedestrian rights-of-way were tied to a 49 percent reduction in commercial vacancies.” In San Francisco, 37 percent of merchants surveyed reported sales increases after bicycle lanes were added to Valencia Street, even though the change reduced the lanes available for car traffic.

These business boosts are necessary for the survival and growth of small local businesses. Why are local businesses so important? A study of locally-owned, independent businesses in Salt Lake City found that the retailers surveyed returned “a total of 52 percent of all revenue to the local economy” and restaurateurs returned 78.6% of all revenue. This is in sharp contrast to the 13.6% and 30.4% of revenue, respectively, that chain stores in the same study returned to the local economy. Local businesses also contributed to charities within their local areas, which is undeniably a sign of a thriving community.

Walkable Urban Areas Attract Employers and Spur the Creation of Diverse Jobs

Today, employment opportunities are growing much more quickly in urban centers than in areas of suburban sprawl. After decades of jobs moving away from cities, the trend has reversed. The most recent data, from 2007-2011, shows job growth in city centers and job loss in peripheral areas. This includes, but is not limited to, a trend of large corporations moving their headquarters downtown, away from suburban office parks.

This shift isn’t just taking place in our country’s largest cities either. As a recent Smart Growth survey illustrates, companies across industries are choosing downtowns — often those that suffered from disinvestment over just the past few decades (like Dayton, Ohio and Newark, New Jersey) — as their homes. Cities like Cincinnati, where Opticos Design led a recent form-based city code project, are taking note of this trend and working to attract investment through improvements in walkability and bikeability.

While many communities that have successfully improved their walkability and bikeability have become hubs for industries like tech and healthcare, job growth occurs outside of those industries as well, and opportunities increase for those with a variety of educational backgrounds. According to Enrico Moretti, professor or economics at the University of California, Berkeley, “For every college graduate who takes a job in an innovation industry, five additional jobs are eventually created in that city for waiters, carpenters and teachers.” Complete neighborhoods, where people live, work and play support both innovation industry job growth, and job growth in more traditional industries like construction, education and food service.

Walkable Neighborhoods Promote Community Involvement and Support Cultural Organizations

Walkable communities build social capital, defined as “a measure of an individual’s or group’s networks, personal connections, and community involvement,” which “brings benefits such as reduced isolation, career connections, and neighborhood safety.” The concept was popularized in the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which reported that “every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10 percent,” and linked social disconnect with increased risk of death.

High levels of social capital, on the other hand, have positive effects for both individuals and communities. One University of New Hampshire study found “that individuals in more walkable neighborhoods tended to have higher levels of trust and community involvement, whether that was working on a community project, attending a club meeting, volunteering, or simply entertaining friends at home. Residents in the more walkable neighborhoods also reported being in good health and happy more often than those in the less walkable neighborhoods.” Another study, this one comparing walkable and car-dependent areas of Galway, Ireland, gathered similar findings.

Those socially-engaged residents of walkable urban neighborhoods support and benefit from a larger range of cultural institutions, from universities and public libraries to sports centers and museums. According to City Observatory, “city centers are disproportionately home to the arts, artists, music, and creative endeavors of all sorts.” Almost anyone who has moved from a city center to its outskirts or suburbs knows this to be true.

Whether in large cities or small towns, walkability isn’t a secondary consideration — it’s essential to the economic well-being of communities and the personal well-being of their residents.