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Walkability vs Drivability: Prying Steering Wheels Out of Pudgy Hands

April 4, 2013

Walkability is a relatively new adjective to describe human settlements, emerging partly from the growing research on the impact of the built environment on health outcomes, including physical activity and obesity. The World Health Organization reminds us that physical inactivity is a common risk factor for major noncommunicable diseases, but less than one half of adults in many developed countries are sufficiently active to protect their health.

A recent paper in Social Science and Medicine on neighborhood walkability in Australia is illustrative of the current research agenda. (An evaluation of cycling, also based on the RESIDE study, appeared in the June 2012 issue of AJPM). Begun in 2003, the RESIDential Environments (RESIDE) project is a longitudinal natural experiment examining the impact of urban planning on active living in metropolitan Perth.  (Disclosure:  I am an urban planner who, immediately out of graduate school, conducted a longitudinal active living experiment of not owning a car for 16 years. Most people considered the experiment unnatural in the extreme.)

Community plan

Photo courtesy of Peter L. Finch

The Australian study catalogued and scaled a number of elements and characteristics that define walkability, and measured utilitarian and recreational walking trips in a new housing development. It presents “preliminary evidence of a dose–response relationship between transport and recreational walking, and access to a mix of local neighborhood destinations.” The dose–response language is especially intriguing, bringing to mind other medical locutions such as traffic congestion pricing, the demand-side strategy to relieve clogged arterial streets in the heart of cities.

The aim of much active living research is to present “high-quality” evidence in support of policy development or policy reform. Sadly, many of the recommendations made are notable for their broadness and generality. Two examples will suffice:  “Policies on transport, land-use, and urban development should be designed to encourage walking and cycling for daily travel.”  “Public policy should become more favorable toward walkable placemaking.”

Is research with a focus on policy rationales even the right approach? I’m not sure.

Sociologist Richard Sennett observes that the cities we have are not the cities we want or need, in part because “the city is not its own master,” and can fail due to national circumstances, or social ills and economic forces beyond local control. Policy makers and urban planners are few among the many shapers of the complex system of our built environment. Market dynamics, industries and major employers, architects, engineers, code officials, lobbyists, real estate developers, lenders, investors, automakers, retailers, consumers, homebuilders, engaged citizens, voters—the list goes on and on—all can take a portion of the credit and blame for what has been, and what will be wrought.

Can walkability challenge drivability? It’s hard to say.  Car addiction is nasty and it has taken a long time and a lot of money to get us here. Weaning us from motorized transport will not be easy, quick, or cheap.

Globally, vast resources and land area are dedicated more or less permanently to: extraction and processing of raw materials for motorized vehicle manufacture; the provision and maintenance of transport infrastructure (roads, bridges, tunnels); and land and buildings for vehicle sale, repair, maintenance, parking, and eventual disposal/recycle. Often a portion of household space is reserved for automobile storage—in a garage, on the driveway, or both, often with more storage space required on public streets. In addition, the fuel industry (mostly fossil) that provides the energy for motorized transport is vast and has produced the wealthiest companies in history.

Auto-dependence enablers include the federal government—provider of depression-era subsidies for road construction and post-war funding of the interstate highway system—and the many public and private agents that helped shape our wants and habits, but which also dismantled rail-based transit systems and enabled urban sprawl and suburban land-use patterns that could not be easily (economically) served by streetcars or buses.

Private automobiles are enormously useful, and in many places indispensable. They convey social status, they can be fun, and they’re marketed relentlessly. Their ubiquity habituates us to them so thoroughly that we accept their flaws and find alternatives hard to imagine or accept. This is understandable when much public transit is a poor substitute for the family car, and can feel punitive in its various inadequacies and irritants.

Yet cars are expensive to own and operate, dangerous, polluting, and they litter the landscape. In much of the developed world ownership far exceeds needs, and traffic congestion increasingly strangles cities and imposes incalculable human and environmental costs.

Ironically, many American cities have started reconstructing new streetcar systems, light rail, and other public transport systems, and walkability is a new marketing feature of residential developments. But policy nostrums for walkability elements in new developments won’t address the massive need for retrofit of existing environments, or halt the removal of important active living components when neighborhood schools are closed by cost accountants with only short-term fiscal concerns in mind.

And speaking of money, the financial community, in the face of both public and private sector barriers, struggles to underwrite high-density, mixed-use, walkable urban development. Walkable urban places are seen as complex developments that carry high risk and therefore costly capital (both equity and debt financing). A report from the Brookings Institution sums it up: “Banks, investors, and Wall Street analysts have traditionally adhered to investment and underwriting silos that reflect 19 standard product types, none of which speak to the nuances involved with walkable developments. Overall, the real estate finance industry lacks the experience, institutional mission or even fiduciary latitude to appropriately consider walkable development investments or loans.”

Surveys that suggest consumer preferences for walkable communities notwithstanding, people who need the exercise will not walk the talk anytime soon. We’ve become too used to the convenience of our cars for weekly shopping and getting the kids to soccer; to the status of the luxury sedan; and to the privacy and perceived safety of moving about in the scary public realm. For those who can afford to live in the pricy new walkable communities, extra physical activity might be an occasional stroll to the coffee shop for a soy latte.

The sad fact is that high levels of physically active transportation (getting from one place to another) are associated with low socioeconomic status, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. But poor people don’t choose to walk or cycle to work or school for their health, but because they don’t have or can’t afford alternatives. To cure car addition, retrofitting cities with urban accouterments will not be enough. There will be no simple “dose–response” formula. New developments will be a drop in the bucket of needed built environment transformations. And convenient, effective alternatives to the car will have to be provided in unimaginable quantities. It might take centuries. Be patient.

— Michael Lytton, AJPM Blog Editor


For Further Reading:

Buman MP, Winter SJ, Sheats JL, et al. The Stanford Health Neighborhood Discovery Tool: A Computerized Tool to Assess Active Living Environments. Am J Prev Med 2013;44(4):e41–7.

Brown BB, Smith KR, Hanson H, Fan JX, Kowaleski-Jones L, Zick CD. Neighborhood Design for Walking and Biking: Physical Activity and Body Mass Index. Am J Prev Med 2013;44(3):231­–8.

Slater SJ, Nicholson L, Chriqui J, Barker DC, Chaloupka FJ, Johnston LD. Walkable Communities and Adolescent Weight. Am J Prev Med 2013;44(2):164–8.

Sugiyama T, Ding D. Owen N. Commuting by Car: Weight Gain Among Physically Active Adults. Am J Prev Med 2013;44(2):169–73.

Evaluation of Active Living by Design. Am J Prev Med Suppl 2012; 43(4S3), November 2012.


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