5 Walkable Cities

By: Maria Trimarchi

A transit strike bumps up the number of people walking to work in the already walkable New York City.
A transit strike bumps up the number of people walking to work in the already walkable New York City.
AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh

­Cars are a big part of our culture: The average American household owns 2.2 cars, up by 10 percent from the early 1990s and 70 percent ­since 1955 [source: Mirhaydari]. Makes sense, since the suburban landscape has also been booming since the '50s. Of the $60 billion Congress spends every year on transportation, only 1.5 percent (roughly $3 per American) goes toward walking or biking projects [source: Walk Score]. Cars and highways are the priority, it seems. Some cities, however, are bucking that trend.

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research and public policy organization, recently evaluated 30 major cities in the United States on their walkability. They aren't the only ones interested in walkable communities. Walk Score also surveyed and ranked 40 cities based on similar ped-friendly thinking. Walkability doesn't mean a count of a city's sidewalks. Sure, sidewalks make it easier to walk around, but think about it -- if there are no local jobs, stores or entertainment, or if the crime rate is high, people will avoid hitting the pavement. The layout of a city is only the beginning. Pedestrian cities embrace the sustainable ideas of New Urbanism: mixed-use developments, high-density urban design and a downtown that is transit-based (public transportation, cars, bikes and feet).


­We'll look at five large metropolitan areas -- with populations of 500,000 or more -- that are a step ahead of other American cities in their walkability efforts.

5: Denver

Denver might be chilly in the winter, but its shopping areas keep people on their feet.
Denver might be chilly in the winter, but its shopping areas keep people on their feet.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Denver may not rank at the very top of Walk Score's rankings -- it earns a 66 on a scale of 100 -- but it's an up-and-comer. As recently as the late 1980s, Denver didn't have any regional-servingwalkable urban places, a fancy way of saying that the city's downtown was strictly business and didn't attract people with a mix of housi­ng, jobs, retail stores and entertainment. Today it has four neighborhoods with walk scores of 90 or higher including Cherry Creek, Capitol Hill, Golden Triangle and Lodo. Forty-three percent of Denver's residents live in a neighborhood with a walk score of 70 or higher, and only 19 percent live in ­car-dependent areas [source: Walk Score].

­How is the city making this happen? Denver is an example of how the addition of a comprehensive public transportation system can change a city's landscape. Walkable urban places are expanding along with the city's rail transit system.


4. Boston

Miles of paths snake through Boston, like this one over the Charles River.
Miles of paths snake through Boston, like this one over the Charles River.
AP Photo/Lisa Poole

­B­oston may be known among car drivers for its maze of streets, but its compact urban design, miles of walking and bike paths, and convenient public transportation system make it easy to get around without a car. Boston's highly walkable neighborhoods include Back Bay-Beacon Hill, South End and Fenway-Kenmore, all of which score just shy of 100 in Walk Score's rankings. The city itself scores 79 out of 100 [source: Walk Score].

Public transit between Boston's outlying neighborhoods and suburbs is easy and cheap. It may be the oldest public transportation system in the country, but it's thoroughly modernized. And, in addition to the ordinary commuter rail, bus and subway options, this system also includes ferries. With so many transportation choices, Boston leads the nation with the highest numbers of residents who walk to work: While the national average is 2.5 percent, a whopping 13.5 percent of commuters walk to work in Boston [source: Christie].


Plus, it's home to "Walking" magazine -- we trust them to know a good walkable city.

3: New York City

New York City's enormous subway fleet makes going carless pretty simple.
New York City's enormous subway fleet makes going carless pretty simple.
AP Photo/Diane Bondareff

­Nearly 70 percent of New York City dwellers don't own a car [source: America's Walking]. Not surprising since the city scored 83 out of 100 on Walk Score's recent rankings. How can they so easily go about their lives without the average 2.2 cars in the driveway? A combination of fleet and feet.

New York City has 24-hour public transportation connecting its five boroughs and the largest fleet of subway cars in the world. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey, more than 55 percent of New York commuters ride buses, trains and light rail [source: Christie].


­The New York metro area actually has the highest number of walkable urban places in the United States, according to a Brookings Institution survey [source: Leinberger]. Let's look at Midtown Manhattan: In that neighborhood alone there are thousands of residences, hotels, cultural establishments and stores, in addition to the more than 300 million square feet (27 million square meters) of office space -- it's the most walkable neighborhood in America [source: Leinberger].

2: Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., features green space and diagonal streets that make walking easier.
Washington, D.C., features green space and diagonal streets that make walking easier.
AP Photo/US Air Force, Andy Dunaway

­When Pierre L'Enfant created the design for Washington, D.C.'s city layout in 1791, it was seen as the model for the development of future American cities. Who would have thought that more than 200 years later Washington, D.C., would still be considered a national model of walkable urban growth? Today D.C. has one walkable place for every 264,000 people -- per capita, that's better than New York City. It also earns a 70 from Walk Score [source: MSNBC and Walk Score].

­As part of L'Enfant's city plan, D.C.'s streets are laid out diagonally across a grid system. This may sound cumbersome, but the result is shorter walking distances between points and potential for green space (in the form of triangular parks) at the street intersections. If the sidewalks can't get you where you want to go, the D.C. metro area also has hundreds of miles of pedestrian and bike paths and a widely used public transportation system -- in fact, at 37.7 percent usage, D.C. is a leader in public transportation, second to New York [source: Christie].


1: San Francisco

San Francisco has kept an eye on urban growth.
San Francisco has kept an eye on urban growth.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

­San Francisco is a walkers' dream, and­ not just because of the mild weather (forget the hills). Only 1 percent of residents live in car-dependent neighborhoods. And a whopping 99 percent of neighborhoods score at least a 50 out of 100 on Walk Score's rankings -- the city itself ranks 86 out of 100 [source: Walk Score].

­Since the early 1970s San Francisco's urban growth plan has kept the relationship between people and their environment at the forefront. Each neighborhood has a distinct feel and manages to combine people's needs -- everything from housing, educational institutions and green space to retail and industry, all with safety in mind. One key piece to this urban growth plan is the San Francisco Municipal Railway system (Muni). Muni run 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is a combination of historic streetcars, commuter rail, diesel buses, alternative fuel vehicles, electric trolley cars and, of course, the famous cable cars. It's been connecting San Francisco's neighborhoods since 1912, and today stops within 2 blocks of 90 percent of all city residences -- more than 200 million people ride each year [source: SFMTA].


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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