Here Are the 5 Most Pedestrian-Friendly Cities in America

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you're the type of house-hunter who hates car-centric suburbs but loves pedestrian-friendly cities, here's a look at five metro areas that offer America's best "walkable urbanism."

"Right now the market wants and is willing to pay a huge premium for 'walkable urban places,'" says George Washington University's Christopher Leinberger, who co-wrote a study with fellow GWU professor Patrick Lynch that ranks cities for "urban walkability."

The researchers define "walkable urban places" (or "WalkUPs" for short) as city or suburban neighborhoods that are easy to walk around in and offer at least 1.4 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail. WalkUPs are the opposite of what Leinberger and Lynch call "drivable suburban" neighborhoods — low-density suburbs where you have to get in your car to get pretty much anywhere.

Leinberger says young professionals have been boosting WalkUPs' development in recent years by choosing to live in pedestrian-friendly urban areas rather than the car-focused suburbs that many grew up in. Some well-heeled baby boomers are adding to the trend by downsizing from suburban homes and into WalkUPs instead, he says.

The GWU researchers have found that WalkUPs offer big dividends to cities that embrace such development.

For instance, Leinberger says, WalkUPs typically have 40% to 100% higher property values per square foot than less-dense developments.

Metro areas with the most WalkUPs also have below-average obesity rates, a higher percentage of college-educated workers and about 36% more per-capita gross domestic product than that of low-walkability cities.

"The message is clear: If you want to be fit, smart and rich, build walkable urban places," Leinberger says. "If you want to be fat, stupid and poor, keep on building drivable suburban ones." 

Read on to check out the major metro areas that researchers found offer the nation's best urban walkability.

Cities are ranked based on what percentage of each area's office and retail space sits in a WalkUP. Communities also got extra credit if they have a fair amount of WalkUPs in suburban communities rather than just within city limits.

Fifth-most-walkable metro area: Chicago

The Windy City certainly doesn't blow when it comes to walkability.

Leinberger and Lynch found that the Chicago area's 38 WalkUPs host 262.4 million square feet of office and retail space, or 29% of the region's total. That's the fifth-best showing among America's largest cities.

Researchers also calculated that Chicagoland has one WalkUP for every 224,000 people, the 10th-best per-capita rate for a major metro area.

Leinberger says Chicago's only real shortcoming is the fact that 94% of the region's WalkUPs are in the downtown Loop or other parts of the city proper.

"Most of the [walkable urbanism] has historically gone from the Loop to the North and Northwest and now south to the University of Chicago area," he says. "It's not going to the suburbs."

Fourth-most-walkable metro area: San Francisco

You can leave your heart in San Francisco, but don't forget to bring your walking shoes.

That's because the Bay Area's WalkUPs have 227.5 million square feet of office and retail space, or 30% of the region's total — the fourth-highest rate nationwide.

Frisco's 57 WalkUPs also work out to one for every 128,000 people, which is the third-best ratio for a big American city.

And while 83% of Frisco's WalkUPs are within city limits, Leinberger says Oakland, Menlo Park and other nearby communities are beginning to catch up.

"Although [WalkUPs are] still predominantly in the city, San Francisco has a pretty broad base of urbanization," he says.

Third-most-walkable metro area: Boston

Beantown's walkable urban neighborhoods are home to 171.8 million square feet of office and retail space, or 36% of the metro area's total. That's good for third place on Leinberger and Lynch's study.

Greater Boston's 37 WalkUPs also equal one for every 108,000 people, which is No. 1 on a per-capita basis for any major U.S. city.

On the downside, researchers found that two-thirds of the metro area's total WalkUPs are in Boston proper.

Leinberger says that while the city-like suburbs of Cambridge and Somerville get high marks for walkable urbanism, other parts of the metro area don't fare as well.

"There are suburbs that need to have explained to them that they can have their cake and eat it, too. People can live in great suburban places and still walk to restaurants if they're just willing to [develop some] walkable urban areas," he says.

Second-most-walkable metro area: New York City

New York's WalkUPs host 773.4 million square feet of office and retail space, or 38% of the metro area's total. That's second place among major U.S. cities.

The Big Apple's 66 walkable urban neighborhoods also correspond to one for every 336,000 residents — the 19th-highest per-capita level for a big U.S. city.

Still, Leinberger says 89% of the Tri-State area's WalkUPs are in New York City proper — mostly in Manhattan, even though the island only hosts 8% of the region's residents.

"While 8% of Metro New York's population lives like Jerry Seinfeld, the other 92% lives in [low-density suburbs] like Tony Soprano," he says. 

Most walkable metro area: Washington, D.C.

Washington is definitely America's capital when it comes to walkable urbanism.

Leinberger and Lynch found that the metro area's WalkUPs have 297.3 million square feet of retail and office space, or 43% of the region's total — No. 1 among major cities.

The D.C. area's 45 walkable neighborhoods also total one for every 112,000 people. That puts the region in second place among big cities for the number of WalkUPs relative to population.

Leinberger says the District and surrounding communities get lots of extra credit for having 49% of walkable commercial space in the suburbs — a tie with Miami for first place nationwide.

The expert says many D.C. suburbs have done a great job developing WalkUPs around the region's well-utilized Metro rail stations. "The real advantage in Washington in the urbanization of its suburbs," Leinberger says.

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