Does "walkability" work in small towns?

As any planner can tell you, one of the topics generating the most discussion these days is the idea that our communities should be more "walkable". The discussion is a reaction to the fact that our development patterns for the past 50 years or more has been centered around accommodating people in their cars rather than people on the street.

For the most part, these discussions are aimed at audiences in large cities - usually large metropolitan areas. When talking about walkability in large urban cities, there is often a strong emphasis on how it will help reduce the need for people to use their cars to get around. At the extreme, the idea is that people can live within walking or biking distance of where they shop and work - or can at least use city buses or light rail lines.

But does this make sense in small towns? Is a goal of reducing dependence on the automobile to get from one place to another practical in small towns?

For those who might advocate for walkable small towns, the answer to this question is worth thinking about. All too often, I have seen good people (mostly planners on this particular topic) who are very intelligent make arguments in favor of "walkability" that are - well, to put it frankly - pretty dumb when put in the context of a small town.

For instance, I could go to a city council meeting and make a statement like "We should do whatever we can to have a walkable downtown - it will help to reduce dependence on the automobile, allow people to walk or bike to work, clean up our air, and reduce global warming." This would pretty much cover most of the main arguments for walkability. If I did, anyone in the audience or on the council who thought about it for a bit would realize that none of these proclaimed benefits would really be all that likely to occur. Consider:

  1. To really get someone to leave their car in the garage and get to work, you'd either need to have an extensive system of public buses that covered all areas of the community and ran throughout the day, or everyone would need to live within a few blocks of where they work and shop for all their needs.
  2. A system of public buses at the scale required would be insanely expensive and inefficient. And to have everyone live within a few blocks of where they live and shop would require pretty much nothing but 10-story buildings of apartments for everyone to live in built over grocery stores and Targets and Wal-Marts. This may work in a large metropolitan area, but surely won't in a small town.
  3. If we're really not providing an alternative to the automobile to get between places, then we aren't likely to make much of a significant difference in cleaning up air or stopping global warming.

Now, lest you think that my pessimism means that I would not support "walkability" in small towns, I fully support efforts to make small towns more walkable. But they would not be for the reasons above. In fact, I would venture to say that using those arguments only hurts the cause because they are so easily shown to be wrong - or are at least a benefit that won't be realized on a large scale for probably at least 10-20 years.

So what arguments would I use? Well, I'd start by noting clearly that a walkable small town will not mean we can all stop buying cars. Or that we can go from two-car families to one-car families. We will likely need our cars for the foreseeable future. And I'd clarify again that we are not going to create a community where even 10% of the residents will be able to walk or bike to their jobs and to fill their daily shopping needs. These may occur in small numbers, but they will only be side benefits.

Rather, I'd say that we need to look at "walkability" in small towns as primarily an economic development tool. A way to help existing businesses succeed. A way to support those small business owners that everyone likes to say they support.

Consider my own experience. My office is one block away from the heart of the "old" downtown - the business district that was part of the original downtown of the city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I can walk to a drug store that is attached to my office building, a hardware store about 2 blocks away, the public library, a handful of restaurants and numerous other stores that are mostly aimed at tourists.

I can tell you that my proximity to the drug store and hardware store, in particular, means I spend money at these stores. If I didn't work so close to them, I'd be far more likely to spend that money out at the Wal-Mart or Menards several miles away out by the freeway. Maybe its because I am a male, but I place a high value on convenience and speed with my shopping. Get it done. In and out. So if I didn't work close to any stores where I could get what I need quickly (even if it cost a little more), then I'd save it for a trip where I can take care of 10 other things on my list at the same time.

Now, while I do work fairly close to some stores, there are many others that I still have to drive to. And while I could spend my lunch break store-hopping (driving to one store, getting out, buying what I need, getting back in the car, driving to the next store, getting out, buying what I need, getting back in the car, etc., etc., etc...) it just doesn't make that much sense. Not exactly the "in and out" shopping I'm looking for. As a result, I save all those things for the Target shopping trip. Or the next trip to Fleet Farm.

The irony here is that our current pattern of development - "island" stores surrounded by parking and connected only by roads requiring cars - was created in the name of convenience. We have been told that for a store to succeed it needs lots of parking, a highly visible storefront, and direct access from highly traveled roads. This is the definition of convenience. Eliminate your visible parking and you'll die.

But as I just described, all of that "convenience", when spread out across a large area and difficult to access except by car is actually very inconvenient - and probably bad for business. The main reason that Wal-Mart and Target and Menards and Fleet Farm succeed is because they grow in size to such a scale that we can actually check off a lot of the things on our shopping list by going to the mega-store and then across the parking lot to maybe one more mega-store.

Now, for some, Target and Menards will always be the most convenient. By this point, it is frankly what most of us are used to and most comfortable with. For these people, the idea of stopping at 4 or 5 small businesses in the space of a couple blocks doesn't sound very convenient - especially in the winter. But consider that our "get it all done at once" shopping mentality is a result of our current pattern of development and that our mentality would change in a more walkable and convenient setting.

If my experience is any guide, my shopping habits change a bit when I can walk to much of what I need on a daily or weekly basis. I pick up a couple things at a time rather than saving everything for one big trip. On Monday, I stop at the hardware store for the couple supplies and then swing by the drug store for a birthday card for my sister. On Tuesday, I stop at a local bakery for that special bread my wife likes and then across the street to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and some PB and J. On Wednesday I meet a colleague for lunch at the restaurant a block away and then pick out some flowers for my wife on the way home at the local florist (OK, that's not something I do every week...but I should). You get the idea. My shopping is more spontaneous. More based on convenience. Somewhat less concerned about saving a dollar or two by going to the mega-store.

Small towns can benefit from walkability. Small business owners can benefit. But its not for the reasons typically given in a large metropolitan area.

In my next post, I'll describe some of the common errors that we make that hinder our ability to make walkable small towns. And I'll suggest some relatively simple, common-sense strategies for overcoming these errors.