Urban

The Most Walkable Cities and How Some Are Making Strides

Nationally, only a small fraction of people walk to work. But some cities' policy and planning efforts are making walking an everyday means of commuting. View data and maps for dozens of U.S. cities.
by | December 13, 2013
Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.
More people walk to work in Cambridge, Mass., than any other large city in the country. Wikimedia Commons
 

Densely populated neighborhoods, commercial district city squares and multiple public transit lines all span the city of Cambridge, Mass., creating an environment ideal for walking.

The most recent Census counts estimate nearly a quarter of the city’s residents walk to work, far more than any other larger U.S. city.

Many localities across the country are continuing to push policies and planning initiatives aimed at making communities more walkable. Recent census figures depict a wide variation in commuting habits among the nation’s urban centers, showing some have done much more than others.

Nationally, only a small fraction of people primarily walk to work – the measure the Census Bureau estimates in its annual American Communities Survey. In a select group of cities, though, recent data illustrates the extent to which walking has emerged as an everyday means of commuting.

Like other older cities, Cambridge is characterized by short city blocks and dense urban development, occupying only slightly more than six square miles of land area.

A city ordinance requires owners of commercial properties who add parking to monitor employee or patron commuting habits and meet targets for those commuting via walking and other sustainable modes of transportation.

“Everything that we’ve done in terms of streets and public infrastructure has been making it a place where people want to walk and bike,” said Cara Seiderman, a city transportation program manager.

Other select cities also recorded notable tallies of walk commuters in the latest Census survey. Residents walking to work accounted for the highest share of all commuters last year in the following cities with populations of at least 100,000:

2012 Rank City Walk Car Public Transportation Bike/Taxi/Other Work from Home
1 Cambridge, Mass. 24.5% 34.5% 24.5% 10% 6.5%
2 Columbia, S.C. 20.7% 71.6% 2.2% 1.4% 4%
3 Berkeley, Calif. 18.1% 40.3% 20.6% 9.4% 11.6%
4 Ann Arbor, Mich. 15.5% 63.3% 10% 5.1% 6.1%
5 Boston, Mass. 15.5% 43.8% 34.6% 2.8% 3.3%
6 Provo, Utah 12.2% 75.5% 1.8% 5.9% 4.6%
7 Washington, D.C. 11.9% 39.7% 38.6% 5.2% 4.6%
8 New Haven, Conn. 11.2% 67% 15.3% 4.8% 1.7%
9 Syracuse, N.Y. 11% 73.4% 9.4% 3% 3.2%
10 Providence, R.I. 10.8% 69.6% 9.2% 5.3% 5%
Source: American Communities Survey, 2012 1-year estimates

(These numbers may seem low because of the Census Bureau’s survey methodology. Only a single primary means of transportation is tallied for an individual’s longest distance traveled, meaning those who walk to bus stops or transit stations are not typically counted as walk commuters.)

In general, college towns tend to boast far greater numbers of walk commuters than other cities. For example, in Columbia, S.C., -- home to the University of South Carolina – more than 70 percent of all walk commuters surveyed in the Census data are under age 25. Young people also account for the vast majority of people who walk to their jobs in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Provo, Utah, suggesting the universities there also boost totals.

In Cambridge, about third of all people walking to work are younger than 25 -- more typical of other cities.

A few tourist destinations, such as Atlantic City, N.J, and Miami Beach, Fla., also recorded higher tallies of walk commuters in the Census survey.

The following map shows cities with populations of at least 100,000 where walking to work is most prevalent (click to open interactive map in new window):

While most cities haven’t yet felt a major uptick in walk commuting, some did experience recent gains.

A review of data for the nation’s 150 most populous cities showed the following recorded the largest increases in the share of walk commuters between 2007 and 2012:

City 2007-2012 Walk Change 2007 Walk Commuters Share 2012 Walk Commuters Share
Fayetteville, N.C. 3.7 1.7% 5.4%
Portland, Ore. 2.6 4.4% 6.9%
Boston, Mass. 2.1 13.3% 15.5%
Atlanta, Ga. 2.1 3.8% 5.9%
Cleveland, Ohio 1.8 3.8% 5.6%
Tacoma, Wash. 1.7 1.9% 3.7%
Fort Wayne, Ind. 1.6 0.5% 2.1%
Chattanooga, Tenn. 1.6 1.9% 3.5%
Seattle, Wash. 1.6 8.3% 9.9%
Santa Rosa, Calif. 1.6 2.3% 3.8%
Providence, R.I. 1.5 9.3% 10.8%
Note: Margins of error are higher for these 1-year estimates and data is not published for smaller cities.

Source: American Communities Survey, 2007 and 2012 1-year estimates

One city on the list, Atlanta, is well known for its frequently-clogged interstates. It’s a factor that has contributed to more people opting to live closer to their jobs and walk, according to Joshuah Mello, the city’s assistant director of transportation planning.

The share of the city’s workforce primarily walking to their jobs climbed from 3.8 percent to 5.9 percent over the five-year period.

Two areas where walking has become a particularly viable form of commuting are the city’s Midtown and Buckhead neighborhoods, Mello said. Both benefit from high-density housing developments and offices located within close proximity.

The vast majority of the city’s capital transportation projects, Mello said, are pedestrian related. To further push walk-friendly projects, the city employs special public interest zoning districts, which promote mix-use development with minimal parking.

Nationally, only 2.8 percent of workers primarily commuted by walking last year, a figure that remains mostly unchanged from recent annual estimates.

Advocates, though, point out that the measure is limited in scope and say it doesn’t provide a complete picture of what’s happening on the ground in cities.

“Walking is growing at a really phenomenal rate,” said Dan Burden, co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute. “It may not be reflected in the commuting data until we see more people living in work centers.”

Much of the nation’s workforce resides in the suburbs, where automobiles remain the preferred way of getting around.

In some of the largest cities – particularly in the southern U.S. – Census data suggests walking has yet to gain momentum.

In Mesa, Ariz., often considered a suburb of Phoenix, just 1 percent of workers commuted primarily by walking last year, according to Census estimates. Walk commuting remains similarly rare in many of Texas’ larger cities, accounting for less than 2 percent of commuters in Arlington, Corpus Christi, Fort Worth, Plano and San Antonio.

Burden said that cities reinventing their town centers and adding high-density housing developments have had more success in encouraging people to ditch their cars, citing Seattle, Portland and Denver as examples.

“A lot of the towns are making these transitions well and becoming the best places to live and raise a family,” Burden said.

Changes in Commuting Habits

View changes in commuting data between 2007 and 2012 for the 150 cities with the most workers:

Walk to Work U.S. Map: Our interactive map shows estimates and demographic data for cities with more than 100,000 residents. Estimates were compiled from the Census Bureau's 3-year ACS data, a slightly different dataset than the figures cited above using a larger survey sample.

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