‘Walkable urbanism as an economic driver?’ By Tim Phillips, MSc graduate

Reconnecting America (c)There is a sea change occurring in United States mobility in recognition of multimodal transit as it relates to walkability and resultant effects on urban forms. Cities and states are in many instances directing future development toward multimodal transit stations, called Transit Oriented Development in the United States, which includes a mix of land uses supporting walkable urbanism.

In less urbanised locations, the economics of these developments are frequently not supported by traditional private sector finance capabilities, as in the case of commuter train stations where expensive structured parking must be erected on public property to free land for development. However, public sentiment towards walkable Transit Oriented Development v is positive and civic leaders find social benefits in providing funds to bridge private sector fiscal gaps.

In the case of urban core sites, however, the economics change drastically.

Planning and development professionals are investigating the effects of walkability on economics, as highlighted in a report released last week by the George Washington School of Business, Foot Traffic Ahead (Leinberger and Lynch 2014). The authors posit that walkable urbanism is an economic driver, although their argument may be delivered in reverse: they note that approximately half of new construction since 2009 (post-recession) is reinvestment located in the top 1% of urban areas that already possessed at least 1.4 million square feet of office and/or 340,000 square feet of retail, plus have a WalkScore of at least 70 on a scale of 100. Almost all of these include (or are planned to include) rail, bus rapid transit, or streetcars, which are regaining popularity in the United States. From an investment point of view this makes sense, as proven locations supported by public investment may entail less risk.

Among other findings, the study affirms the positive correlation between walkability, education and income attainment without acknowledging a source of this relationship. The study also finds that urban walkability is related to higher rent premiums. This is reversed compared to the experience in suburban and commuter locations, where land values do not support dense development. However, this dichotomy may simply describe urban form as dictated by the economics of bid-rents curves in a polycentric city and imbalanced job markets, which are necessarily deeper in urban areas.

The report additionally ignores the drive of the investor class, who during the recession chased sinking returns to dense urban centers where demographics favored projects large enough to support the vast amounts of capital sitting idle. The investment concentrated in top tier urban cores until supply has recently become imbalanced with demand, slowing investment in recent months. This will result in fewer future developments in cities like San Francisco, New York and Washington DC.

So, while walkable urbanism has recently been brought to the forefront in the United States, it may ultimately be more related to civic experience, design and quality than to economics.

Leinberger, C. B., and Lynch, P., (2014) Foot Traffic Ahead George Washington School of Business

Tim Phillips is a graduate of the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development (2011) and is the Director of Land Acquisition for The Bozzuto Group, a residential and mixed-use developer in Washington, DC.

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