“In a lot of Manhattan and in a lot of San Francisco, it is illegal to build Manhattan or San Francisco today.” Michael Rodriguez, AICP, coauthor of the 2023 Foot Traffic Ahead report, is describing parts of the number one and number four most walkable cities in the U.S., and sounding a warning about how 20th-century zoning changes have rendered what is best about American cities increasingly hard to recreate.
This article was written by Ben Abramson and originally published by Strong Towns.
Starting in 2014, Smart Growth America has done four installments of this report, ranking American cities for walkability. While the 2023 results may not be surprising—the top five walkable cities are New York City; Boston; Washington, DC; Seattle; and Portland, Oregon—this year’s report comes with some eye-opening statistics about their importance to the U.S. economy. Just 1.2% of the land mass in American metropolitan areas generates 19.1% of the country’s GDP.
It also correlates that to a negative number: Restrictive zoning prevents such walkable features as mixed-use development and increased density in the other 98.8%.
Walkable urbanism is a wonky term, but Rodriguez breaks it down simply as “places where one can mostly walk to a good majority of their needs, [including] work, shopping, and entertainment.”
Rounding out the top 10 for walkability are San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. The report notes some connections between the top-ranking cities: “Many metro areas at the top of this list have large, historic rail transit networks and a history of more compact urbanism that predates 1940, when the default mode of development was walkable urbanism.”
But walkable cities don’t always correlate to walkable regions. So, this year’s rankings also include a separate breakdown of social equity as it relates to walkability. Analyzing a combination of housing affordability, access to transit, and proximity to walkable places within a metro area, some of the top performers overall slip down the rankings.
Cleveland ranks as the number one city for equitable access to walkability, driven largely by housing affordability in its core neighborhoods. New York ranks number two, reflecting its overall density and exceptional access to transit. Two cities that score well in the overall rankings, Portland (#5) and Los Angeles (#8), tumble in the equity rankings, because the areas in which each offer the most pedestrian-friendly amenities are inaccessible, either by distance or transit options, to many lower-income residents and people of color.
Los Angeles is an interesting case study. Rodriguez notes that it was once one of the U.S.’s densest cities and in 1930 had a robust light rail network. Then it “got severely downzoned in the 50s,” and went all-in on the Suburban Experiment, producing the freeway-strewn landscape that many still picture today. But Rodriguez points to Los Angeles County’s substantial investment in light rail and denser, transit-oriented development in recent decades, which landed it ahead of eastern metropolises like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the walkability rankings.
Walkable urbanism continues to produce robust economic benefits. The report finds that housing sells for a 34% higher price per square foot compared to auto-oriented areas, while the premium for office and multifamily rentals is 47%. These cities have also experienced migration gains from under-35, educated, mobile professionals, who prioritize walkable amenities—not to mention, walkable urban areas were more resilient to COVID-related economic damage.
The report, and the experts we spoke to about it, emphasize the importance of zoning reform to address many of the challenges metropolitan regions face. Single-family zoning stifles development of missing-middle housing. Single-use business districts prevent downtown cores from adapting to changing market conditions. And then, there’s parking.
Toccarra Nicole Thomas, AICP, director of land use and development, points out the many ways parking policy can harm a city. With housing, a developer has to pass the cost of parking onto the price of rent, or reduce amenities, which hampers affordability (not to mention it uses up land for parking, rather than for more housing). Parking mandates hamstring entrepreneurs by adding tens of thousands of dollars to projects that may already be a reach for a small business owner. And a landscape broken up by surface parking is a menacing one for pedestrians and other non-drivers.
The pandemic’s effects on business districts has been widely covered—Rodriguez notes overall office vacancy rates are not out of line with other down-market periods—and here again, zoning reform emerges as a central theme. Many cities historically imposed single-use business districts for selfish reasons. “We have always had too many offices in our downtowns, that was by design,” says Rodrguez. Office workers bring jobs and tax revenue to a city but leave at 5 p.m., so cities favored them because “unlike pesky residents, you don’t have to educate children or provide services.”
From his perspective, the issue sparked by the pandemic isn’t whether buildings are rented, which is a private business concern, it’s those that have workers coming in with much less frequency, which affects so many associated businesses, such as lunch spots. Zoning reform in districts that currently mandate business-only uses could spur development of mixed-use and missing middle projects, and the surrounding areas could develop a broader tax base and be more resilient.
Here, too, there’s an equity concern. With a cumbersome and expensive path to either seek variances or change overall zoning codes under the current system, “you’re locking out infill developers and small-scale developers from the process,” says Thomas.
Thomas also sounds the alarm about pedestrian deaths. Citing a previous Smart Growth America report, Dangerous by Design, the rate of pedestrian deaths increased by 4.5% from 2019 to 2020, with a total of 6,500, or about 18 fatal encounters a day. These increases came even with reduced vehicular traffic due to the pandemic (similar to Strong Towns’ analysis of traffic fatalities). Thomas says part of the reason is more people were out walking as transportation choices were limited, and “because black and brown Americans typically walk,” their rates of car violence grew disproportionately. She notes several aspects that could be addressed by design and policy changes: “You have the curb cuts, surface parking, onstreet parking, and all of that is competing for the streetscape with those who want to use it,” outside of a car.
In a subject that has proven controversial for Strong Towns, the study notes that “urbanization of the suburbs is also a key momentum trend for future walkable urbanism.” It cites the Washington, DC, suburb of Tysons, Virginia, as a place that is trying to retrofit an urban-style core on a stroad-filled corridor. While such suburbs may not yet achieve true walkability, Rodriguez urges patience. “The point is you’re putting in the effort and laying down the regulatory and the financial frameworks to make it so that it can happen over time,” he says, mentioning such actions as increasing density, regridding streets, and emphasizing access to transit.
Another contributing factor to changes in the suburbs is generational. Some younger Americans who grew up in 1980s suburbs are trying to bring some of the advantages they found in urban areas to their current homes. “Just because you don’t live in the middle of a core city doesn’t mean you can’t have some of that where you are,” says Rodriguez, citing the call for more walk-to retail and safer pedestrian infrastructure.
In the report, Smart Growth America advocates form-based codes, such as those adopted to great effect in South Bend, Indiana. These rules, which prioritize defined design standards over regulating uses, aim to eliminate the adverse effects of single-use zoning. The report notes, “form-based codes can add to the toolbox to retain existing residents and businesses by leading to the development of a wider variety of housing types, including apartments and missing-middle units.” Thomas also sees them as a great vehicle to rehabilitate some of America’s least hospitable landscapes. “Malls are a fantastic use case for form-based code: you have this huge landmass with one use which is dying or dead, and you have a housing crisis,” so the right projects could turn acres of unproductive land into valuable community resources.
Foot Traffic Ahead gives a succinct summary of the many zoning reforms urban areas must grapple with to support local economies and housing demands: “Regions would do well to expand what can be built.”
For citizens who want to support walkable urbanism in their community, Rodriguez advises residents to pay attention to individual projects, such as mixed-use developments, bike lanes, or pedestrian redesigns, and engage with the process. “Local governments need more people showing up to these hearings to say yes. The other side is very good at showing up and saying no.”