Phoenix More Walkable Than Sacramento? Walk On

 

As we at CP&DR know, the business of rating urban things is dangerous. Our recent rankings of the best and worst big city downtowns and medium-sized city downtowns didn’t exactly thrill everyone. But people, myself included, love lists.

You probably read or heard about the Brookings Institution’s recently released report on the walkability of the country’s largest metropolitan areas — “Footloose and Fancy Free: A Field Survey of Walkable Urban Places in the Top 30 U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” But if you’re truly interested in the subject, you might want to read the entire report for yourself.

Two reasons for reading the report:

First, the methodology is problematic, something which the study’s author, Christopher Leinberger, acknowledges. I think the methodology makes the rankings nearly meaningless.

Second, the report contains some observations and conclusions – which are not harmed by the methodology — that appear to hold true in California.

If you read the news stories, you know that the Washington, D.C., area ranked first in walkability, followed by Boston and San Francisco. At first glance, that seemed like a reasonable top three. What caused me to pause in the first place was the ranking of Sacramento: 27th out of 30. Now, I’ve knocked Sacramento’s alleged urbanism in the past.  But it’s hard for me to believe that Sacramento is less walkable than the likes of Houston, Orlando and Phoenix.

Sacramento’s downtown and midtown are very walkable. Uses are mixed, many sidewalks are wide, motorists are accustomed to pedestrians, and the streetscape is generally pleasing. Older residential neighborhoods such as East Sacramento, Curtis Park and Land Park are full of people on foot. On the metropolitan periphery, much of the college town of Davis is easily walkable, as is the older core of Woodland.

Ever tried to walk somewhere in Phoenix, a place defined by high-speed surface streets and low-density development? Good luck.

Turns out the Brookings’ report rankings are based on the number of walkable urban places per capita. For the purposes of the report, a walkable urban place must be “regional serving,” rather than “local serving,” a distinction that I think misses the point of walkability. The definition is thus: “Regional-serving places provide uses that have regional significance, such as employment, retail, medical, entertainment, cultural, higher-education, etc., and generally integrate residential as well.”

The report lists five types of regional walkable urban places: downtown, downtown adjacent, suburban town center, suburban redevelopment, and greenfield (such as mixed-use “lifestyle centers”).

According to this criteria, the Sacramento metropolitan area’s 2 million people are stuck with only one walkable place — downtown Sacramento. Phoenix’s 4 million people can choose from Tempe and “24th and Camelback.” Houston’s 5.5 million people have the lively Montrose district and two suburban lifestyle centers.

Those are the only sorts of places that rate in the study. Moreover, the study admittedly does not account for the size of these places. Thus, downtown San Francisco is given the same weight as the handful of walkable blocks in Emoryville (sic) and Menlo Park.

In addition, the study counts only those urban places that are at or near “critical mass,” meaning new development does not require significant public or private subsidies. I’m baffled here. Why consider staunchly slow-growth Menlo Park to be at critical mass, but not nearby Mountain View — where developers are building hundreds of market-rate housing units in the very fine downtown?

But enough of my griping. Leinberger does use the survey to make some interesting observations:

• “Today, walkable urban places are just as likely to be found in the suburbs as in center cities.” This is especially true in California, no matter how you define walkable urban place.

 • “Rail transit seems to play a significant role in catalyzing walkable urban development.” Just have a look around a BART, Metro or San Diego Trolley station.

• “A tale of two kinds of metropolitan areas may be evolving: Those metros benefiting from the trend toward walkable urbanism, and those out of position.” Those out of position, according to the report, are those not committed to providing good rail transit systems. The report names Cincinnati, Detroit and Kansas City. If this conclusion is true (and I have trouble arguing against it), places such as the Inland Empire and Orange County (both of which have very limited Metro service), Fresno, Bakersfield and Sonoma County are stuck with the car culture, for good or ill.

- Paul Shigley