Is a Wave Building for Walkability?

Two people crossing the street - reflections of 2022

By Mike McGinn

When does an issue breakthrough? It is one of the most fascinating topics in politics. There are things that seem like they can never change. Then they change. 

Are we approaching that moment for walkable and accessible communities? The evidence is decidedly mixed. But having been an active participant in politics for the last forty years, my spidey senses are tingling.

Before we get to the evidence, let’s consider the very idea of a seismic shift. It can happen. We have seen it with smoking, gay marriage, and marijuana legalization. But progress is also not inevitable. We need only look at some of our most enduring issues – inequality, racism, and women’s bodily autonomy. Action begets reaction, gains are made and lost, then made again. Change is grindingly slow.

And some issues seem impossible. The deck is stacked on climate as we have built in rising temperatures. The transportation sector, the single largest source of CO2 emissions, seems particularly fraught, as our transportation investments and land use patterns lock in excessive fossil fuel use for decades. (Yes, electric cars will help, but not fast enough, and certainly not equitably given the expense and tragic collateral damage of car-centric places.)

So, can we actually remove the barriers to moving around our communities, and build healthy inclusive places for all?  The evidence for that change is happening all around us.

Let’s consider the following:

  • More money than ever for active transportation. Not near enough, and still too much for road and highway expansion. But in politics voters don’t go straight from no to yes, they go through undecided first. That’s the path our budgets are on.
  • Highway removal is on the table. When I was working to remove Seattle’s waterfront highway we had precious few US examples to draw upon. More cities are doing it, Congress launched Reconnecting Communities, and our Freeway Fighters Network is growing.
  • States and cities are breaking up the concrete around new housing. Single-family zoning was once considered a third rail of local politics. But the public strongly supports new housing types, especially in existing walkable neighborhoods, and that demand is sparking expansive new policies from cities and states.
  • Momentum to remove parking minimums. It’s a bona fide trend for cities to eliminate archaic parking minimum rules that raise costs for new housing and small businesses, and destroy walkability. 
  • Freedom to walk. Eliminating over-policing and harassment of Black and Brown community members goes far too slowly – but the changes continue. Last year California joined Virginia, Kansas City, and Nevada in decriminalizing jaywalking. This year Washington is launching an effort, and we expect more states and cities to follow.
  • Regulating vehicles for pedestrian safety. For the first time ever, the US Department of Transportation is considering regulating vehicles for the safety of people outside of cars. New York started a pilot on Intelligent Speed Assistance for city vehicles. While autonomous vehicles remain problematic, new technologies like automatic pedestrian detection and braking could be incorporated into new car standards.

None of the above are new ideas (and some are ridiculously old). Nor are we just learning the benefits of walkability. What is new is that public attitudes are changing, and it is particularly evident demographically.
Some of us old heads get it, but collectively younger generations are markedly more favorable to active transportation, walkability, climate action, and racial justice.

The Movement by the Numbers

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the American Public Transportation Association, 74% of millennials (born 1981-1996) and 67% of Generation Z (born 1997-2012) said they would prefer to live in a community with public transportation, compared to just 53% of baby boomers (born 1946-1964).  Similarly, a 2019 survey by the National Association of Realtors, about 60% of 18-34 year olds said that they would prefer to live in a walkable community, compared to just 37% of those 55 and older. 

A 2020 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that younger Americans are also more likely to support government action to address climate change. The poll found that 71% of Americans in the 18-29 age group support government action to address climate change, compared to 57% of Americans in the 30-49 age group, 49% of Americans in the 50-64 age group, and 41% of Americans 65 and older. The Pew Research Center also found that among those ages 18-29, 72% believe that “more needs to be done to give black people equal rights with whites.”

And in 2022, let’s face it, Gen Z had a moment. The Inflation Reduction Act passed because younger generations demanded action on climate that could no longer be ignored. Their voice was similarly heard on student loans and in elections. Head on over to Instagram and Tiktok to see an explosion of explainer videos on the fine points of walkable and accessible communities.

Looking Ahead

Does this mean that 2023 will be the year that we break through, and make human-scaled places a priority in our land use and transportation plans? I can’t say that. It is only in retrospect that change appears inevitable. At the moment, the battle for hearts and minds is hard fought and the outcome is always in doubt.

But when you look at all the evidence, a wave is building. We just have to keep at it. Whether it is changing one mind, one street, or one community, it all adds up. Thank you everyone for your work. Here’s to 2023.