Evidence abounds for walkability as an economic development tool

Image: City of Lancaster

Lancaster Boulevard, Lancaster, CA

Why do we need walkable communities?  Well, in addition to the health benefits of walking and the decreased environmental impact of car-free transportation, it turns out that walkability has an overwhelmingly positive effect on local economies.  There is a growing body of evidence that walking increases economic activity and that pedestrians can be a key component of the path to economic recovery.

An article published last month by The Atlantic Cities tells the story of Lancaster, California, a small city in Los Angeles County that has exploded in growth since the 1980’s.  However, Lancaster’s downtown had been declining due to suburban commercial development elsewhere.  The city intervened by redesigning its main boulevard to be more pedestrian friendly.  They added tree-lined medians, benches, and other improvements to draw pedestrians to the corridor.  Since then, this boulevard  has seen the establishment of 49 new business, and overall revenue has almost doubled.  The roadway is safer now too–crashes that resulted in personal injury have been reduced by 85%.  The Lancaster project clearly shows that complete street design and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure does not just improve walkability, but can be a catalyst for local economic growth.

So what is it that makes pedestrian-friendly streets such great engines of growth?  Well, according to a study in Portland, pedestrians and cyclists spend more money at local restaurants and bars than car users.  There’s a number of reasons why this may be the case, and the researchers have yet to identify what the exact explanation is for this trend.  It could be because pedestrians and cyclists do not own cars or, if they do, they use them less frequently and therefore spend less money on things like gas and more on things like dining out.  It could be because parking is not a determinant of destination when you’re on foot.  Whatever the reason, this is very useful information for businesses and walking advocates everywhere.

The New York City Department of Transportation did a similar study that found that increasing walkability by turning a parking lot into a pedestrian plaza nearly tripled sales at nearby businesses.  New York has completed numerous pedestrian and bicycle improvements throughout the city.  It is time for every city and town to follow suit and improve streets for all users.  Walkability is more than just a planning buzzword.  Pedestrians are fundamental for economic growth and recovery.

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