Interesting findings from a new UCTC study on walkability:
Our results show that the number of businesses per acre is the single most robust indicator of whether people are likely to walk in their neighborhood. We find that people living in neighborhoods with more business establishments per acre conduct more of their travel within their neighborhood and are more likely to travel by walking.
This suggests that walkable neighborhoods are often places where there are many nearby destinations. Measures that might correlate with large establishments—retail employment or sales—did not predict walking travel nearly as reliably as the number of businesses per acre, suggesting that the key is not simply sales but a large number and variety of businesses in a relatively small area.
So when people say they want their neighborhood to be more walkable, one of the things they mean is that they want to increase business density. The more people are able to access their basic needs within walking distance of their homes, the more they choose to walk. Seems pretty obvious, but this underscores my point about the need to encourage infill development of vacant lots and surface parking lots in cities’ most high-demand business district and neighborhoods.
Except in cities’ central business districts, most people don’t live within walking distance of too many commercial retail buildings. So if your goal is increasing business density in a neighborhood, by definition this means adding some new buildings within walking distance of people’s homes. Where are you going to add them? In a compact neighborhood with mostly attached buildings, your choices are vacant land, surface parking lots, or replacing an existing building.
Any successful effort to increase the number of commercial buildings within walking distance of people’ homes is going to bring some more traffic to the neighborhood, both foot traffic and vehicle traffic. That’s unavoidable. More congestion and high demand for parking is a sign that you have succeeded in creating a place where people want to be. They’re not good reasons to oppose infill development.
The problem you can avoid is mismanaging that congestion by pricing parking at below-market rates. If you are willing to let parking rates on the most high-demand blocks rise to the market-clearing price during peak times of the day, you can make sure there’s always a couple spaces open on every block. With variable pricing, people would have the choice to park as close to their destination as they wanted, as long as they were willing to pay a little more. This and other demand-side solutions are the better way to respond to greater business density in walkable neighborhoods. It would be perverse to reject more development because it might make your neighborhood more desirable.