One Thing People Will Still Splurge on When They Move to the ’Burbs

Henry Grabar 4-5 minutes 1/27/2023

Paying More to Drive Less

What Americans really want out of a neighborhood, wherever it is.

Pedestrians walk along Hayes Street in the Hayes Valley neighborhood San Francisco, California, on November 2, 2022. - When an upmarket clothing brand shuttered its San Francisco store last month, its boss said the west coast destination was a "city of chaos" where gangs of criminals roam free, robbing businesses at will.
The closure of Cotopaxi seemed to confirm everything the Republican Party has been saying about rising crime in the United States in the run up to the midterm elections. (Photo by Samantha LAUREY / AFP) (Photo by SAMANTHA LAUREY/AFP via Getty Images)

The people know what they want. Samantha Laurey/Getty Images

What does it cost to live in a place where you can travel on foot to nearby shops, services, and amenities? According to a new report, homebuyers in America’s largest metro areas will pay 35 percent more for walkable real estate. Renters pay a 41 percent premium.

That analysis comes from the nonprofit advocacy group Smart Growth America, and it lines up with some previous studies, with the key difference that this one comes after the pandemic prompted an urban crisis of population flight and commercial vacancy. The huge run-up in home prices since then has favored suburbs over cities, especially in high-cost places like New York and San Francisco. But Americans still pay a huge markup to live in places where you can buy milk on foot, whether they’re in the city or the suburbs.

It’s not hard to understand why: According to the SGA report, “walkable” urbanism—defined here by a mixture of street design, land use, transit access, and points of interest—occupies just 16 percent of the residential-retail-office mix in the country’s 35 biggest metro areas. It occupies just 1.2 percent of the land.

The most walkable metro areas will not surprise you: New York, Boston, Washington, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (The last one, despite its reputation for highways, is the most densely populated metro area in the country.) The least walkable places are San Diego, Indianapolis, Tampa, Virginia Beach, Phoenix, Orlando, San Antonio, and Las Vegas.

Since the pandemic, surveys show American living preferences shifting toward larger houses, further apart, that are miles away from schools and stores. But if denser neighborhoods are a niche preference, high prices show they are still under-provided relative to the number of people who want to live there. Only in six markets were walkable urban places cheaper than car-centric suburban areas: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. Those are older cities with lots of walkable neighborhoods—but they have suffered from job loss and gun violence.

In the other 29 big cities, walkability will cost you. In addition to the obvious problem that people are not able to afford to live where they want to, this has given rise to a number of wacky cultural conclusions, such as the idea that walking or riding a bike is an elite pastime, or that infrastructure to make it safe to do so is an instrument of gentrification.

What’s to blame? A popular culprit is zoning, which restricts further housing growth in walkable neighborhoods and stops commercial development in suburban areas. But as the report shows, zoning isn’t the only problem here. Even in Boston and Chicago, which rank second and third to New York in terms of rental housing in walkable places, the majority of multifamily housing is located in autocentric areas. The other problem is bad urban design, in which fast, wide streets and windy street grids can make it hard to walk even to nearby destinations.

As it stands, Americans are voting with their foot on the accelerator for more sprawling cities—but it’s hard to tell if that reflects genuine preference or a reaction to high housing prices. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s building more places where it doesn’t cost a fortune to be able to walk to school or the supermarket.