The Walking Blues of Walkable Neighborhoods

Walkable neighborhoods breed healthier and safer communities, but a new study finds that safe streets are scarce in poor neighborhoods.

Walking Poor Neighborhood

In poorer walkable neighborhoods, pedestrians are more than four times as likely to be injured, and the situation is similar for cyclists.

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Walkability has developed a strong cache in American cities over the past few years. Innovations like Walk Score, which help urban dwellers navigate pedestrian-friendly commutes and communities, are increasingly popular. Studies by Brookings and the University of Arizona have found that home buyers will pay top dollar for a walkable neighborhood, and those areas were more likely to be insulated from the housing collapse. Walkability also breeds higher social capital and trust among neighbors, according to a University of New Hampshire study.

It’s not hard to feel more connected to a larger community when walking through a neighborhood or bustling downtown. A pedestrian is more likely to strike up a conversation with someone they don’t know, and by itself, walking is very good exercise. From an environmental perspective, car dependency is also woefully unsustainable, one of many reasons why young people are much less interested in driving than their parents.

So which neighborhoods are walkable, and which aren’t? A new study by the American Journal of Public Health finds that the least walkable neighborhoods in a large urban area are typically the poorest, reports DC Streetsblog (April 24, 2012). Traffic volume on poorer neighborhood streets is more than double that of wealthier areas, a consequence of urban planning models that push multi-lane highways and major intersections to low-income areas.

And whereas car-centric infrastructure can be a nuisance in the suburbs, in low-income neighborhoods, it can be downright dangerous. Pedestrians there are more than four times as likely to be injured, and the situation is similar for cyclists. The reason is that residents of poorer neighborhoods are much more likely to rely on walking, cycling, and public transit to get around, but their surroundings don’t do much to support that activity. Poorer walkable neighborhoods are also likely to be denser, which partly explains the higher traffic volumes.