Walkability is important. Search data proves it.
For decades, we’ve been told that cities should be designed for cars, not walkability. Car culture perpetuates the idea that driving is the best and often only way to get around. And in many areas, that’s true. But climate change, pedestrian deaths, and increasing congestion on city streets have created more interest in transit and walkability.
How do we know? Because, in their own time, people are looking for parks, trails, and other safe places to walk.
Searching for Walkability
How can we tell what people really want in a neighborhood or a community? Often, we simply ask — but that can be tricky. Polling questions may be leading and getting a sample size that’s truly representative can be difficult. In order to get another angle, we have to examine what people do, not what they report.
Looking at Google Trends, then, can be a fruitful way to find out what people are really interested in learning about.
Unsurprisingly, most people aren’t searching for “walkability,” specifically. That particular term has seen little to no growth in the last five years. For Google Trends, instead, you have to look at what people would actually Google if they wanted more information. So let’s look at what someone might search for if they wanted to go for a walk.
So I searched for “walking trails near me.”
There’s a sharp spike in the searches for this term in the beginning of 2020 — right around the announcement of the COVID pandemic and subsequent closures of schools and officers.
The COVID/walking connection has been well documented. In an article for Outside, Gloria Liu explored her own relationship with walking and its popularity as a pandemic activity. Walking may not always feel like exercise, but it is, she said, always pleasant.
“In the past few months,” she wrote, “I’ve taken phone calls with faraway friends on walks, gone walking to break through writing blocks or to rehearse for difficult conversations. I wasn’t just exercising. My life was happening.”
COVID pushed a lot of folks to try walking, if only because they couldn’t go to the gym and needed a safe way to leave the house. This meant that folks who had never walked before now needed to find out where they could go, which lead to searches of trails and paths.
Here are some related search terms and their percentage increase:
The problem, though, for many of these people is whether or not they’re get positive results.
What Else Do People Search For?
It’s not surprising that people are also searching for other elements that make their cities feel like home. Often, folks are searching for spaces “near me” because they hope to walk there, or take another form of transportation. As a result, we see related spikes in searches for “parks near me” and “places to walk near me.”
Unfortunately, a lot of people who have sought out walking paths or trails may have found themselves disappointed; in spite of growing interest in walkability, there hasn’t been a commensurate increase in new, safe places to walk and move. A Brookings report from 2019 found that most of the population still lived more than a mile from a park — and it’s unlikely that COVID-related cuts may mean less, more more, funding for infrastructure.
This is where the rubber (you know, the rubber of a tennis shoe sole) hits the road — where demand and supply must meet. We know that folks love parks, love sidewalks, and love places where they can safely walk with their pets, their kids, or just a podcast. Since COVID-19, people have been hunting for spaces that provide safe outdoor access, preferably close enough to go without getting in their cars.
These Google Trends may not be highly scientific, but they do support an important point: That people want to walk, and that our local lawmakers had better be ready to meet that need.