5 Truths About the Economic Impact of Walking

From our 2014 report Footnotes: A Report On the State of Walking in LA. Donate to get a printed copy. Special thanks to Melendréz for funding the printing of our 2015 Footnotes report. 


Developer Yuval Bar-Zemer discusses five ways he’s seeing pedestrian improvements contribute to a more financially viable L.A. As told to Los Angeles Walks steering committee member Daveed Kapoor.

We know walking is good for our communities and good for our health. But how does designing for walking help businesses—and the city—improve their bottom lines? As  founder of Linear City Development, Yuval Bar-Zemer has led the transformation of several neighborhoods by paying special attention to pedestrian life. Over lunch at Urban Radish, a new Arts District grocery store developed by Linear City, Bar-Zemer described five ways he’s seen walking boost L.A.’s economy.

Density is changing the way Angelenos spend money. From an urban planning perspective, we have to think of what level of density will create an environment in which we don't have to rely on the car for basic life functions. Can we get your job close enough to your home? Can we get your kid’s school close enough? Can we get your three favorite restaurants? Can we get your grocery store? If you manage to do that, then the option of walking is no longer a “pioneering, visionary” type thing, but rather becomes the decision that actually makes the most sense. You get your exercise and you get where you need to go by foot. We built the Urban Radish grocery store around this idea. If you live nearby and you want to come and do your shopping here, it sounds reasonable that you will walk a couple of blocks, and you can do it three times a week and leave your car in your garage.

Good walkability provides an economic boost to the neighborhood. Once you manage to change people’s priorities, and the preferred mode of transportation becomes cycling and walking, that means that the available radius for amenities shrinks dramatically. This dynamic enforces the local businesses that can rely on the support of the immediate neighbors to patronize their business, as opposed to a large mall development, requiring everyone to drive far away on a freeway and park in a big parking lot. You are localizing commerce. You benefit from tax revenues, localized sales tax, and then all the services. You can show the community that you are supporting local business by making walking a priority.

Car-sharing helps alleviate financial burden for residents. Linear City installed the largest public electric vehicle-charging facility in the city, and placed two electric vehicles that operate as a community car-share program. Literally you can live in this neighborhood without the need to own a car. If you need one, you just go online and make a reservation and you have a car for the day.

I think this is going to be part of the future: The flexibility of not owning a car but still using it to address your needs—doing some errands or visiting a friend—makes a lot of economic sense and will enhance the choice of walking. I believe that many people would be happy to get rid of their car or the $400 to $500 cost per month associated with owning a car as long as they have most of what they need in a walking distance and the availability of a car when they need it.

Cutting back on parking can save everyone money. When developing a property, a developer has to figure out how much parking is needed as part of marketability: Does one need one space per unit or two? How does one allocate spaces between commercial and residential uses? Then there is the financial aspect, it can cost $25,000 just to build a parking spot. If you create a project in an environment where the emphasis is on walking rather than driving, and you can solve the need for each person to have his own car, that would result in a lower parking count which make the project more cost-effective. If a developer decides to break the trend and design a project where only one parking space is available to every three units by assuming that most residents will use walking or cycling and car-sharing, the developer will change the current planning paradigm. If successful, many will follow this model.

If L.A. prioritized walking, we’d all be richer for it. The City is not making money off the car industry. Nobody pays the City to drive on its streets. It would be interesting to see what the Public Works street division is spending on maintenance on a regular basis. How many bonds were raised over the last 50 years to build streets, freeways, highways, and so on, and really, who takes on the burden of this tax? Like the way most individual drivers don’t understand the cost of owning a car, the City of Los Angeles does not understand the cost of prioritizing the car as the primary mode of transportation. The cost of infrastructure for pedestrians is one-tenth the cost of car infrastructure. The economic benefit is obvious. Policymakers should adopt a radical shift and bring cycling and walking to the top priority.


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