Walkable Communities:  Can You Get There from Here?

January 10, 2005

SUMMARY:  While walking is a very good thing, it's not practical in today's society to provide shopping opportunities to which many people can and will walk. Walking to work is an idea that can be realized on an individual basis sometimes, but in terms of designing communities so that many people can do it, it's a pipe dream that ignores the existing development and the current patterns of work. Neighborhoods need to be designed to accommodate walking for leisure, which is less a social activity these days than a private activity. As a result, those who would like us to substitute walking for driving miss the point. Enhancing the former may not reduce the latter.

The proponents of smart growth and the new urbanism advocate creating communities that "return to the walkable patterns of our historic towns and cities." This sounds fine in theory, especially if you remember that there were a lot of "drivers" in those historic towns and cities. Rural (farm) residents commuted to town shops by wagon or carriage, and later by car or pickup truck, to buy what they couldn't grow or make. And the shops were dependent on their trade. But let's ignore the fact that the ideal world of walkability that is supposed to be our model never quite existed. Walkable streets and convenient shops are a fine goal. But can we realize them?

Let's start by artificially dividing the two purposes for walking. The first is to get somewhere, either to work or to shop. The second is to get exercise, and get it as pleasantly as possible. For our purposes, this artificial distinction is necessary to determine the extent to which we can make it convenient for people to walk or bike instead of driving.

Walking to Shop

There are two changes to modern life that relate to walkability, and both are relatively recent in time. The first is the rise of the big box retailers, and the second is the rise of internet shopping.

Big box retailers offer customers a number of advantages over small mom-and-pop stores. In general, they have a much wider selection, much better prices, and longer hours of operation. In exchange for these advantages, customers lose the "everybody-knows-your-name" hospitality and sometimes the expertise and personal attention. Given the financial success of big box retailers, it seems clear that shoppers are mostly ready to make that trade-off.

Internet shopping is in many ways the concept of the big box taken to the extreme. Selection includes almost everything made. Stores are always open. And shoppers can almost always find a very competitive price. The tradeoff is a lack of personal service (compensated for by the ability to review on line the installation or operating instructions), the fact that the shopper can't physically examine the item, and the fact that the shopper must wait for delivery.

Keeping in mind these two developments in shopping, let's think about what it is that a suburban resident can walk to, bike to, or take mass transit to. Let's also think about what might go in the neighborhood center, the "hub of community life" for the neighborhood. To begin, let's be generous and assume that people would walk 15 minutes to get to their destination, at least in good weather. That's about three-quarters of a mile to a mile.And they might carry 5-10 lbs, or perhaps a bit more if they have a cart or a wagon.

Big Box Retail Stores

It's a safe assumption that no one will walk, bike, or take the bus to Home Depot for a sheet of plywood, or to Best Buy for a television set. Large items must be transported by car. But even transporting two pillows from Bed, Bath, and Beyond is very difficult for a shopper who is walking any distance. More to the point, however, is the fact that economies of scale prevent big box chains, or their competitors, from locating a store close to another. We just won't see Lowes or Circuit City at the same density as 7-Eleven.

Grocery Stores

In the Europe of thirty years ago, housewives shopped daily for food for the next 24 hours at the small local grocery. That has never been the American pattern, and even in Europe today more working women and refrigeration have gone a long way to eliminate this custom. Daily food shopping (including the 15 minute walk each way) is a luxury that working people just don't have time for. They would prefer to buy for a week or two, and they'd prefer to buy at the lowest price possible. They can't carry a week's worth of groceries on mass transit or in a wagon. Therefore the large grocery store will remain dominant. Lovers of the neighborhood store with limited selection can, of course, always shop at 7-Eleven, one of which probably is within walking distance of most suburbanites.


Drugstores epitomize the type of store that works for pedestrians since purchases are almost always easily carried by hand, often, in the case of a prescription, in a pocket or a purse. There are two caveats, however. First, the drugstore must accept your health plan. If it doesn't, it's of little use. Further, long term or maintenance prescriptions are purchased more cheaply and easily on the internet or by phone, to be delivered by mail. Most health plans encourage this. Over the long run, drugstores will become less common, not more so. To those who argue that drugstores sell lots of non-prescription items, I'd agree. But these items are very price-competitive (with grocery stores, for example) and consequently low margin. The pharmacy is at the back of a drugstore for a reason. The drugstore hopes you will pick up some other items on your way back to the pharmacy or on your way out.


A bookstore can be walked to for a paper, magazine, or a few books or CDs. There are two problems, however. First, customers have gravitated to the big box bookstores. Second, the internet offers better values (even within a big box chain itself) and an infinitely better selection. While the internet can't offer coffee or an autograph session with a live author, I wouldn't look at selling books in a bricks and mortar store as a growth business. Don't expect more community book stores.

Gas Stations and Auto Repair Shops

While it might seem silly to think about walking to a gas station or repair shop, it isn't. Being able to drop off a car (or a tire) for repair and walk home is a nice convenience. The issue is that most communities would prefer not to have loud, noisy car repair facilities at their center.


A bank would seem like the ideal business to which to walk, except that people today do less and less business inside the bank itself and more at its ATM. Indeed, many people are now looking into online banks with no physical presence at all. And of course many bank customers would feel quite uneasy about making a withdrawal from an ATM and walking home after doing so, especially at night.

Video Rental Stores

This is another type of store from which rentals/purchases can easily be carried home, but the concept is hardly a growth one. Can you say Netflix? And the next big thing will be downloading movies online. Most people can more readily identify a bricks and mortar video store that recently closed than one that opened.

Dry Cleaners

Despite their ubiquity (probably second behind 7-Eleven), it's difficult to carry an armload of clothes to a dry cleaner and then carry home the clean clothes on hangers if you're walking, biking, or taking the bus.

Greeting Cards and Holiday Item Stores

These are still prime examples of small neighborhood stores to which you could walk.

Coffee Shops and Fast Food Stores

People who have the time can (and probably should) walk to these stores, though perhaps a 15 minute walk time would let the food/beverage get cold and would require eating in, not taking out.


These are very walkable, although the economies of scale for movie theaters seem to demand that they be clustered in multiplexes. As for legitimate theater, it will by its nature be rare due to its higher cost and more limited demand for its product.

Doctors, Dentists, Lawyers, Accountants

All of these services require carrying little or nothing to the office, and therefore could be walked to. However, these professionals are not interchangeable. You want to go to YOUR dentist, even if that involves driving past several other dentists' offices on the way.

Walking to Work

If you can't work at home, the next most convenient job location is somewhere to which you can walk or bike. For most people, however, attaining and maintaining such a convenient job situation is less easy than it might appear.

Families today most often consist of two working parents—and may have older children who do some part-time work. Given this reality, having a house close to the workplace of one parent often means an extensive commute for the other. And given the current job mobility where people frequently change jobs, having a home near the current employer may not help in three years when the employee switches jobs (or the employer moves). The idea that held sway 30 years ago, that one should find the perfect employer and stay with that company forever, seems totally outdated in a work environment where a variety of experience is thought to be essential and companies upsize and downsize as they win or lose business.

In the existing suburbs, large new businesses can't simply convert a vast empty wilderness to office space and have developers build homes around it for the employees. New office space will go into an existing community that will already be filled with other businesses and homes. There won't be room for large amounts of new housing unless old homes and places of businesses are torn out. As a result, very, very few of the employees of the new business will be walking to work.

Finally, even if it were possible to cluster employees around their employer, it is questionable whether "company towns" are a good idea. If the company leaves, or downsizes, or goes out of business, the glut of housing suddenly on the market will drive down the prices of homes in the vicinity. And it's also worth wondering whether you really want to live with all the people with whom you work every day.

In short, on an individual basis, it's a great idea to live where you can walk to work. Trying to scale this up from an individual to an enterprise and having housing in the immediate neighborhood available for all the employees is a much more difficult situation to attain, and, arguably, a much less desirable one.

Walking for Exercise

People have always walked for exercise and to enjoy their surroundings. The question is where they'd like to walk and what they'd like to see. Some community planners envision a social nature to this walking, with people sitting and rocking on the front porch after dinner, waving and talking to the passersby—at least when it's not too cold, too hot, or when there aren't too many mosquitoes. In fact, if you've ever closely looked at the houses in Old Town Alexandria that sit right on the street, you'll see that all seem to need shades or shutters to protect the privacy of the homeowners from the pedestrians, and these shades or shutters are almost always closed. This suggests that the intimacy some proponents of walking advocate in theory isn't so popular in practice. I doubt that walking as a shared social activity among the walkers and homeowners is a particularly good model for what people want these days. Walkers often want to walk in the early morning, during the day, or even after dark. Rather than socialize, they'd really like a brisk walk or at least time alone with their thoughts. And often they want to walk in a natural setting, on a path in the woods rather than on streets and sidewalks of the neighborhood, contending with the traffic. To the extent they do want to walk in their neighborhood, they want to see lawns and trees and gardens, not three feet of grass between the sidewalk and the houses along it.

It's worth noting that the higher the density, the less people actually know their neighbors, especially in big cities. Perhaps people ought to want to spend more time socializing with neighbors, but they don't seem to want to, and especially not when they would like a brisk walk or a chance to experience nature. To the extent this is true, communities need trails away from the residential areas in large safe parks. High density is the enemy of this kind of walking. Of course, you can consolidate parks, but then the walkers would have to drive to them.


While walking is a very good thing, it's not practical in today's society to provide shopping opportunities to which many people can and will walk. If it were practical to walk to many types of merchants (which it isn't), the necessity of following the economies of scale prevent merchants from locating their stores on the 7-Eleven model—one in every neighborhood. To the extent that shopping doesn't migrate to the internet, it will still be most often an activity that involves driving to the store.

Walking to work is an idea that can be realized on an individual basis sometimes, but in terms of designing mixed-use communities so that many people can do it, it's a pipe dream that ignores the existing development and the current patterns of work. Far better to try to achieve telecommuting, for which the infrastructure is a home, already in place, or an easy-to-build telecommuting center.

Walking for leisure is less a social activity these days than a private activity, either alone or with the family or a pet. Existing low density neighborhoods are best for this, especially if trails through the woods are only a short walk away.

Looking to high density and planning to encourage walking misses the point. People walk today for leisure and exercise, not to shop or to go to work. Give them neighborhoods and parks where it's safe an enjoyable to walk and they will. Trying to get them out of their cars for their errands after work is doomed to failure.

And that highlights the failure of the attempt to link walkable neighborhoods to reducing the number of cars on the road. Walking can make people happier, healthier, and more conscious of their surroundings. But it can't make a substantial reduction in the number of trips in the car to get to work and to run errands. We need to look at other alternatives for that.

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