Let’s Walk There
In New York, I walk wherever I can. I walk to work. I walk to appointments and meetings. It’s quick, it’s invigorating, and cityscape gradually unfolds around you in all its architectural, botanical, and avian splendor. When I can’t walk, I take the subway. I try to spend as little time as possible in cars of any sort between 9 Am and 6 PM between 60th Street and Union Square. I believe that walkability makes a city great: integrated, affordable, and dynamic. The only issue which has interfered in recent years with my love of walking is the enormous increase in tourism; tourists, also usually strolling on foot, create ped-lock on Fifth and Madison Avenues in the 30s, 40s, and 50s which can make it hard to get around. Too much of a good thing!
George Washington University recently published a study on walkability in the Tri-State area which contained some fascinating insights:
- Walkable land makes up only 2.5% of the geographic area, but is home to 42% of the population and creates 53% of its real estate value
- Walkability promotes diversity. One of the key concepts behind the GWU concept of Walkability is access to public transportation. Manhattan is, of course, particularly rich in both bus and subway routes. The ganglia of the whole New York underground nerve center are clustered together in Manhattan; as one travels out deeper into Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, easy access to subway and express bus transportation recedes. And suburban communities within walking distance to public transportation continue to be few and far between.
- While developers in New York build with a focus on proximity to transportation alternatives, this message has less successfully reached developers building outside the boundaries of the city. Too much development in the suburbs is still car-dependent, which both limits the market and introduces more cars into the vehicular jungle of the center city.
Reading through the study, I was struck again by how lucky those of us living in urban areas are. We enjoy easy, on foot access to restaurants, groceries, our offices, and every imaginable service (and it doesn’t hurt that in New York, so many of them stay open late. Where else could I walk a block and a half from home to buy ice cream at 11 PM, as I did on Election Night?) If we can’t walk there, we can almost certainly take the bus or the subway. Our kids don’t endanger themselves driving around on Saturday nights in cars with drunk friends. Because we live in apartment buildings, and heat rises, we spend much less per capita on heating than residents of single family structures, especially the sprawling ones so much in vogue with wealthy people today.
The ease of urban life, combined with the increasing concentration of career opportunities in urban centers as we become more and more a service and technology economy, explains why each year, worldwide, more and more people become urban dwellers. This demand creates its own set of problems. As more and more people want the greater flexibility and economy which walkability provide, those very desires increase the demand for space and make cities like ours less affordable. Intelligently sited middle and lower middle income housing provide a crucial cornerstone in guaranteeing that the benefits of walkability remain (or become) available to as much of our urban and Tri-State population as possible. Because vibrant, diverse communities have people on the street.