By Kaid Benfield, October 3, 2013
Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe they should walk more, but
forty percent say they do not do so because their neighborhoods do not
have nearby services, shops, schools and work, according to a national survey released this week.
The lack of nearby walkable destinations ranks as the second most often
cited reason for not walking. The survey found that the biggest
neighborhood barriers to walking include a lack of sidewalks, drivers
who speed, and drivers who talk on their phones or text. Crime
ranks eighth overall out of 15 items as a neighborhood barrier to
walking, but it ranks 5th among both African Americans and Hispanic
respondents compared to 12th among white respondents.
The survey of 1,224 Americans nationwide was commissioned by Kaiser
Permanente and conducted by GfK Custom Research. Assisting in the design
of the questionnaire and analysis of the data were Professors Peter
Tuckel and William Milczarski of Hunter College, City University of New
York. All interviewing took place August 5 to August 13.
While six in 10 Americans describe their neighborhood as "walkable,"
individuals who live in more walkable neighborhoods ("with places where
it is convenient to walk to services, shopping, schools and jobs") do, in fact, walk more.
Four in 10 describe their neighborhood as "not very'" or "not at all
walkable." A majority of Americans do not choose their neighborhood
based on its perceived walkability, however.
These findings were presented at yesterday’s session of the National
Walk Summit in Washington, D.C., which I attended. Christopher Fleury of
GfK added at the meeting that a slim majority of the respondents
support smart growth measures, including smaller home lots, to promote
Although Americans don’t walk as much as they believe they should, an
overwhelming majority recognize that walking brings significant
benefits. Nationwide, 94 percent of those surveyed said they view
walking as good for their health.
At least nine in 10 agreed that walking is a good way to lose weight,
maintain a healthy weight and can help prevent heart disease. In
addition, 73 percent said they believe their children should walk more.
(For a good summary of the many benefits of walking, go here.)
Americans also view walking as a good way to reduce stress and combat depression.
More than eight in 10 respondents said that walking can reduce feelings
of depression and 87 percent said walking helps reduce anxiety.
While the survey findings are encouraging to those of us who believe
that land use factors are important to a healthy lifestyle, at least two
audience members cautioned that, in their parts of the country,
"walkability" was perceived as threatening to those who prefer suburban
lifestyles. They advised that advocates should guard against using
"walkable" as code for "high density."
Although it was surprising to me that even "walkable" is now on the
list of threatening planners’ jargon, I do think the fear of high
density is real. Those of us who live and work in big cities can get a
distorted view of what is desirable. I think advocates need to get
serious about supporting moderate-density alternatives in appropriate
situations, along with neighborhood design measures that can soften the
otherwise harsh effects of density.
Indeed, the research demonstrates that most of the environmental
benefits of smart growth – including reduced automobile dependence and
reduced stormwater runoff per capita – do not require high densities: the biggest performance improvements come at the lower end of the scale,
as we move from large-lot sprawl to moderate degrees of compactness
and, by the time we reach 40 to 50 units per acre, further environmental
performance improvements are relatively insignificant. A dialogue about
these issues is largely missing from the current discourse around smart
growth, and that is unfortunate.