For being at the intersection of 2 state highways and the fact Main Street is 3 wide lanes wide with the traffic heading in one direction, Sebastopol is a surprisingly walkable place. After growing up in a suburban environment I have spent most of my adult life living in places where it is possible to walk for much of what I need and I cannot imagine living in a non-walkable environment. Walk Score is a website that lets you look up the walkability of any address (currently only in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Locations are scored from 0-100 with 100 being the most walkable location. The neighborhood I grew up in has a walk score of 18 – not very walkable, although I was able to walk to elementary school. My current home has a walk score of 89. I live within a 20 minute walk of 5 grocery stores, a movie theater, independent bookstore, used bookstore, other shops, good restaurants and cafes and more. I have a personal goal to walk or bike to any destination in town and being able to walk to much of what I need daily gives a real sense of individual freedom that cannot be matched by a car.

The desire to live in walkable locations is on the rise, with more teenagers waiting to get their licenses and young adults driving less and choosing to live in walkable communities served by public transit. Among 16-23 year olds driving is down 23%, public transit use is up 40% and bicycling is up 24%. Many Baby Boomer retirees are looking for the same. Walk score has shown measurable economic benefits to being in a walkable neighborhood. For example, a 1 point increase in walk score has been shown to increase home value between $700 and $3,000 depending on the market (Walking the Walk). Cities with the highest Walk Scores like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. also have some of the highest property values in the country.

Walking can provide us with myriad health benefits and living in a walkable community makes us much more likely to walk on a regular basis. Two in 3 adults are now considered clinically overweight or obese, and childhood obesity has risen nearly 30% since the 1960’s. Diet has much to do with this, but a lack of regular exercise is also a prime factor. Regular walking can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, colon and breast cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression and anxiety. When we live in a walkable community we are more likely to integrate walking into our daily routines rather than get in a car for all our errands. Diverse nearby destinations and an attractive environment to walk in will encourage us to leave the car behind. Rather than exercise for the sake of exercising, we are able to exercise while making a trip to the grocery store, going to work or out for dinner. And we are much more likely to stick to this routine rather than exercise for exercise sake. Plus it’s free (as opposed to a gym membership). Many people, including the Center for Disease Control, are beginning to recognize that the design of our built environment has much to do with the obesity epidemic, and are advocating for the creation of more walkable communities.

In addition to the health benefits, walking is fun and has many positive social benefits. I’ve lived in Sebastopol for over 11 years now. Being a small town (pop. around 7,200) it’s near impossible for me to walk downtown and not run into someone I know. What could start as a quick 15 minute trip to the video store can easily turn into a 30 or 40 minute trip taking into account the chance meetings that happen along the way. I genuinely enjoy those spontaneous interactions which are vitally important in a strong and connected community. It is much more difficult to make those personal connections in an unwalkable community. I believe that is a reason many people today, particularly in sprawling environments, feel less connected to their neighborhood and community. Many of our built environments do not encourage this connectivity with one another. Walkable places do.

In contrast, driving in a car is incredibly anti-social. We get into cars and feel a complete disconnection from the surrounding environment. The environment becomes something to ‘get through’ as we travel from point A to point B and we are completely disconnected from it. We pass through our communities at speeds that do not allow us to really observe our surroundings, and in ways that do not allow us any personal interaction, other than the possibility of road rage directed at our fellow drivers. Although I have not seen any studies to back me up I would imagine that sidewalk rage is a relatively rare occurrence. I have, however, witnessed, and even participated in, pedestrian rage directed at cars cutting people off in a crosswalk.

We are also much more observant of our environment when we walk through it rather than drive. Walking can be truly enjoyable when you have something interesting to look at. Walkable places must have interesting buildings, close to the sidewalk to stimulate our eyes. When I lived in San Francisco and walked to work from Russian Hill to the Financial District I was constantly seeing new details in the buildings along my various walking routes. It was a visually stimulating environment. I recently noticed a home in my neighborhood tucked behind a rather large garage that I have never noticed before. It seems like there is always something new to observe. On the other hand, sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses are boring to walk through. After walking a couple of blocks, you’ve seen all the variety there is.

Walking is much more freeing for those that cannot drive, particularly children. I have been trying to raise my daughter to show her that she can be responsible for getting herself around town. She has been walking to school since kindergarten and is able to walk to after school activities, and knows that she can get herself around town without depending on her parents for a ride whether that be by walking or biking. Unfortunately her school is moving to a less walkable location (see 2 previous blog posts on the issue here and here). Thankfully it won’t happen before she moves on to high school. Not only does this give children a sense of freedom, it is also freeing for the parents in that they do not have to spend so much time driving their children from destination to destination.

It is commonly accepted that the private car provides us a great deal of freedom in regards to personal transportation. While the car does provide freedom to travel long distances on our own schedule, it is very limiting in some ways. The increase in car ownership over the course of the 20th century has transformed our built environment. Cities and towns used to be built to the scale of the pedestrian and our need to be able to walk to satisfy all our daily needs. We walked to work, school, parks and stores. With widespread car ownership we were ‘freed’ from the limitation of how far we could walk to satisfy our daily needs and our daily destinations were spread farther and farther apart. This separation has been reflected in our zoning codes which often separate uses from one another so that residences are separated from workplaces, schools and shopping so that in many places it is simply not possible to walk between destinations. And even when it is physically possible, it is often not desirable as auto-oriented environments are often at best not pleasant for pedestrians, and at worst downright dangerous.

I don’t ever recall being delayed to a destination due to a pedestrian traffic jam. By walking to a destination I am able to predict exactly how long it will take me. When driving, there are far more factors to affect the time of the trip that are out of my control that you cannot always predict trip length. I had a discussion recently with someone who was late to a meeting because she could not find a place to park nearby and had to circle until she found a parking space. I walked to the same meeting from my office in the 6 minutes it always takes me. If I had driven (which would be absurd for a 6 minute walk) it probably would have taken longer as I would have had the same parking issue. As a pedestrian, I am not beholden to traffic or parking when transporting myself.

And car ownership can be a financial burden. Car payments, insurance, gas and maintenance are typically the second highest household expense after housing. AAA provides an annual estimate of the cost of car ownership which in 2013 $9,122 for an average sedan (costs ranged from $6,967 for a small sedan to $11,599 for an SUV) which is based on driving 15,000 miles annually. The AAA study does not take into account costs associated with driving like tolls and parking which in some areas can be substantial. Parking in private garages in some urban areas can cost up to $300 per month. Not to mention the environmental burden caused by cars of which there are many.

I am fortunate to live in a place where my need to use  my car is limited to trips out of town, which can be as infrequent as once per week. I believe many other people would live in similar communities if they were able. Is is vitally important to our future from health, social, economic and environmental perspectives to create more walkable environments.

Many of the ideas in this blog entry were inspired be the book ‘Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time’ by Jeff Speck. Available at Amazon, or better yet, walk down to your local bookstore. Jeff has given a TED talk that gives a good synopsis of the book. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in making a more walkable environment. The Ten Steps of Walkability as described in his book:

  1. Put Cars in Their Place
  2. Mix the Uses
  3. Get the Parking Right
  4. Let Transit Work
  5. Protect the Pedestrian
  6. Welcome Bikes
  7. Shape the Spaces
  8. Plant Trees
  9. Make Friendly and Unique Faces
  10. Pick your Winners