Making Money in America’s Most Walkable Cities
A new study from D.C.-based Smart Growth America lists the most walkable places of America’s 30 largest metro areas, and the results aren’t surprising. New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle led the charge. The study includes the percentage of office, retail and multi-family structures within a given area, and focuses on each place's WalkScore, which has become a popular metric for anybody shopping for a new house in the last five years.
While WalkScore began as a curiosity included in some real estate listings in the trendiest cities, it has now gone mainstream, and its data is being used in some interesting places.
As I’m currently reading “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time” by Jeff Speck, I asked him for some general thoughts on walkability and, more specifically, how WalkScores can translate into the retail and restaurant world.
“I would look at WalkScore.com to see where locations might be more productive based on walkability,” he said. “I would look at places where transit investment is being made, especially streetcars. I would look for tiny art galleries and rainbow flags. The smart property developers learned a long time ago to follow the artists into town.”
Acknowledging that cars rightfully remain a vital part of the real estate site selection game, he added that retailers and commercial developers need to remember, “Cars don’t shop, people do.” He added, as a nice piece of evidence, that retailers along the well-publicized new bike lanes in New York City have seen their revenue go up an average of 50 percent since the installation.
“Nothing gets money out of a local economy faster than driving,” Speck said. “Most of what is spent on driving leaves the economy, and ... people with cars shop at Home Depot down the highway rather than Joe’s Hardware down the street.”
Asked about the trend of resurgent city centers and younger people favoring more urban lifestyles in recent years, he added he expects these trends to accelerate in the coming years, rather than stagnate or reverse back toward the suburbs.
“The data is all in my book, 'Walkable City.' Young people are driving less and voting for downtowns with their feet,” he said. “What is desired is not just ‘cities,’ it’s the urban part of cities that can offer the walkable lifestyle. Even Detroit is finally experiencing net population gains this year, but almost all of it is happening in walkable, close-in neighborhoods.”
Getting back to Smart Growth America’s recent results, it’s interesting to look at the rest of the top 15 cities. You’ll notice these aren’t just the biggest cities in the country (in most case)—they’re also the fastest growing metro areas. After Seattle at No. 6, the list continues with Portland, Pittsburgh, Denver, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Cleveland and St. Louis.
When you’re looking for your next frontier to grow your business or franchised chain, think of where the growth will occur in the coming years, not just where growth happened in previous generations. That would be on the fringes of cities and along major highways and freeways.
Judging from anecdotal surveys of millennials and appreciating home values (that are rising faster in areas with higher WalkScores), it’s clear the next waves of American growth will happen in the densest, most pedestrian-friendly cities in the country.