Foot Traffic Ahead 2023
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The past three years have taken the country into unknown territory, and that was especially true for the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. The COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted public health, housing prices, and employment, causing many to predict the “death of the city.” The 2023 Foot Traffic Ahead report finds just the opposite: the city endures, and across most metros, grew walkable urbanism.
This year’s Foot Traffic Ahead (FTA) report required a different approach in methodology and analytics than in past years. Since the 2019 report, much of urban life has changed: the popularity of remote work skyrocketed; ever-increasing housing demand continued to push up the price of homes; public parks became invaluable social gathering spaces; and streets that once served only cars were shut down to make way for people. Taking these changes into account, FTA takes stock of the nation’s 35 largest metropolitan areas to identify how walkability in these places has transformed, and how walkable urban places compare across the country.
The report found that 19.1% of the total U.S. real GDP and 6.8% of the U.S. population are located in walkable urban places that represent just 1.2% of total landmass of the top 35 U.S. metros.
The intent of this report is to present to the public, advocates, local policymakers, and urban researchers a systematic, data-driven glimpse into walkable urban places at the metropolitan level, and support this with observations about how markets respond. Specifically, how the low supply of walkable urban places has negatively impacted affordability. The report also provides policymakers with recommendations on how to increase both the supply of and access to equitable, walkable development while safeguarding affordability. Walkable urban areas have the potential to improve community health by promoting physical activity, can reduce emissions by decreasing car use, and can advance equity by bringing access to economic opportunity. It is critical that people of all backgrounds, especially those historically disadvantaged by racist land use, housing, and lending policy, have access to walkability and all the benefits associated with it.
See more of the Foot Traffic Ahead findings on the next tab.
What is walkable urbanism?
The urban–suburban typology of land use is not reflective of modern-day settlement patterns, as stereotypically “suburban” neighborhoods urbanize, and dense urban development shifts away from traditional central business district radial development. Instead, this report utilizes a typology that compares the urban form and economic function of a place to determine its role in its respective regional real estate market. The two urban forms we consider are walkable urbanism and drivable sub-urban. The two economic functions we consider are regionally significant and locally serving places.
Walkable urbanism comprises two different kinds of development, shown in our Form Function Matrix. Type I and Type II products represent development and settlement patterns that are more dense, walkable, and often connected via multiple transit options. Drivable sub-urban areas include Type III and IV real estate products. These places are low density, connected by highways and interstates, and segregate land uses based on product type. Any of these typologies could be in central cities or peripheral suburban neighborhoods. What matters more than the geographical location of any Type is their density and real estate product mix of office, retail, multi-family rental housing, and for-sale housing. The more of each of these products in an area, the more walkable it is. All told, walkable urban places contain the highest concentration of office space (42.1%), just over one-third of multi-family rental spaces (30.4%), just under a quarter of retail space, and the smallest amount of for-sale housing (11.6%).
Economic indicators of regional significance include major job centers where industries and organizations locate and create wealth for the region. Regionally significant places tend to concentrate on unique, place-specific cultural, educational, and entertainment assets that serve those living throughout the region. In contrast, locally-serving places are predominantly residential with complementary commercial development. Think of your local grocery store, pharmacy, or smaller bank branches. Locally-serving places also tend to include industries that are part of the public service sector like fire stations, public schools, and social centers. These places are usually dispersed throughout the region rather than concentrated in one area, and follow residential housing patterns and population growth.
In spite of COVID-19, people continue to choose walkable urban places
The COVID-19 pandemic shifted how many of us think about space and how we interact with those around us. In the country’s 35 largest metros, this was no different. The only real estate product that was significantly impacted by the pandemic in terms of occupancy and leasing was office space. Retail spaces remained essentially unaffected, and multi-family rental properties saw an uptick in occupancy. It is no coincidence that many downtowns in dense urban areas grew stagnant and saw reduced foot traffic throughout the pandemic and have struggled to recover—that is where most offices are located. Although the pandemic reduced the use of office spaces in walkable urban areas, it is more likely that this was a bump in the road for walkable urban places given that price premiums (i.e. demand) reflect a continuing interest in walkable urban places. For-sale housing is a different story. Throughout the pandemic, housing prices in walkable urban places skyrocketed, indicating favorability in the market and demand for more walkable places.
In terms of rent trends, prices for office rents have reflected a dip in demand for office spaces, decreasing in 21 of the 35 metro markets. Retail markets were essentially unaffected by the pandemic, following the beat of their own drums and preserving through shifting market conditions. Multifamily rents continue to be high in all markets—as high as 80% in the New York metro region in 2021—although there has been a small dip in rents over the past year, this appears to be temporary and premiums will endure for multifamily housing.
Net absorption trends for commercial space reveal that the COVID-19 pandemic did hurt leasing trends in almost all markets for office spaces, with mixed impacts on retail, and minimal effects on multifamily rental housing. For all of these product types, walkable urbanism proved more resilient to the pandemic than drivable sub-urban areas. The same follows for for-sale housing trends. The pandemic slightly reduced price premiums in walkable urban markets, but it is still 33.5% higher than drivable suburban for-sale housing. Overall, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of neighborhoods that are amenity-rich and accessible. Small businesses, local parks, and other amenities became critical hubs in neighborhoods all over the country and proved the resiliency of walkable urban places.
Limited supply and high demand for walkable urban places will reduce their affordability
Our findings show that there is an ever-present demand for walkable urban places; people want to live, work, and play in spaces that are vibrant and well-connected. This demand is indicated by premiums, or higher prices, for housing located in walkable urban places. For example, in the Washington, DC metro area, the premium for for-sale housing in walkable urban areas was 90% in 2021, meaning that it cost 90% more to live in walkable urban areas than not. Walkable urbanism only comprises about 1.2% of a region’s total land area, pushing premiums higher and higher, and leaving historically marginalized and low-income communities behind. The major reason for the high walkable urban price premiums is the artificial constraint on walkable urban land availability. In most metropolitan areas, it is illegal to build at densities that allow for walkable urbanism due to restrictive zoning policies. Addressing these constraints on housing supply and maintaining a focus on affordability is a key recommendation arising from the Foot Traffic Ahead analysis.
Economic opportunity is located in walkable urban places
In the largest 35 metros, walkable urban land comprises only 1.2% of the regions’ total land mass, but accounts for over one-fifth (19.1%) of the nation’s annual gross domestic product (GDP). In other words, the bulk of economic activity and wealth in a region is generated in walkable urban areas. This supports more efficient use of space and infrastructure while generating higher rates of local tax revenue. In the top 35 metros, approximately one-third of all jobs are in significant walkable urban places. This is partly due to real estate product premiums and out-sized population in these areas, but also because of the unique assets walkable urban areas tend to have. Walkable urbanism plays a critical role in each metro region as well as in the nation as a whole.
Beyond economics, walkable urban places have a range of benefits
Our research shows that a higher level of walkable urbanism is correlated with increased educational attainment and greater economic vitality. The top eight regions in our FTA rankings have a population-weighted educational attainment of 42% with a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33% in the lowest-ranking metros. The eight highest-ranked metros on our FTA Index have an average per capita GDP of $68,285; the lowest-ranked eight metros GDP per capita is just $50,297—representing a 36% per capita GDP increase associated with a greater amount of walkable urban places. Regions with more walkable urbanism tend to host larger, more robust economies that favor knowledge economy industries like tech, medicine, and other professional services. Agglomeration forces, essentially the clustering of similar industries and economies, bolster the area’s resilience.
Walkable urban places also increase community health and overall quality of life by providing more opportunities for physical exercise, cultivating a sense of identity and community, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and fostering social justice and racial equity by providing distributed access to the opportunities walkable urban places provide.
Equity and walkability are not always self-reinforcing
One of the main results from our Foot Traffic Ahead Report was that there is a high demand, and a high price point, for living in walkable urban places. Since there is not enough supply of walkable urban places to meet demand, the cost of living in walkable locations is often very high, limiting who can afford to live, work, and play in these places. Access to walkable urbanism can also be prohibited, as evidenced by current and past policies like restrictive zoning, covenants, redlining, and highway construction. These barriers are particularly harmful and targeted toward communities of color and lower-income communities. Ensuring that walkable areas are affordable and accessible for all people should be a high priority for policymakers, local governments, developers, and planners. It will take a village to both create new, and retrofit established walkability so that everyone can take advantage of the benefits located there.
This report creates three unique opportunities to evaluate the 35 largest metro areas and uses a series of indices to tell the stories of growing walkability, social equity, and future real estate trends.
|Region||Foot Traffic Ahead Rank||Social Equity Rank||Future Momentum Rank|
Foot Traffic Ahead Rankings
Level 1: Highest Walkable Urbanism (FTA Rankings Nos. 1-8)
These places host the largest concentrations of knowledge economy industries along with large, connected transit systems, and a history of more compact urbanism that pre-dates 1940. For example, Chicago contains most of its walkable urbanism along its MARTA and CTA network. In Boston, the T anchors walkable urbanism in and outside the center city. The same goes for the San Francisco Bay Area with the BART Caltrain and MUNI rail systems.
Level 2: Upper Middle Walkable Urbanism (FTA Rankings Nos. 9-18)
The rankings of these places are heavily based on the inclusion of Type II walkable neighborhoods. Level 2 regions are mainly pre-20th century developments that were converted to drivable suburbs, and that are currently being retrofitted for more walkable development. Many of these areas saw significantly more foot traffic during the pandemic.
Level 3: Lower-Middle Urbanism (FTA Rankings Nos. 19-27)
This category is divided between Midwestern metros repositioning their historically industrial economies and Sunbelt metros attempting to introduce walkable urbanism. These areas tend to have limited transit networks that leave significant portions of their region disconnected from walkable urbanism.
Level 4: Lowest Walkable Urbanism (FTA Rankings Nos. 18-35)
This level consists of many Sunbelt metros with downtowns and other urban commercial areas that are in the process of revitalization that have some elements of walkable infrastructure, but are not connected, whether it be by transit or other modes of transportation. These places were developed to be auto-oriented, and have remained that way.
Social Equity Index
What We Mean By Social Equity
The concept of social equity can have different meanings, spanning issues like the wealth gap, educational attainment, policing, crime, health outcomes, social mobility, and many more. In this report, we confine our Index to topics most relevant to Foot Traffic Ahead’s focus on walkability: housing costs, transit access, and the distance to walkability. Our Social Equity Index answers two essential questions: 1) How hard is it for someone to access walkable areas and the benefits located there, and 2) How do price premiums and lack of housing supply impact who can afford to live in and near these highly desirable areas?
A comparatively large amount of walkable urbanism doesn’t mean that walkability is accessible and evenly distributed. Some places are affordable, but lack well-connected transit systems and have limited walkability; others are more expensive, but have far-reaching transit connections and more access to walkable places. Our Social Equity Index ranks the top 35 metros by the affordability of and access to well-located housing and services; transit quality; and distance to walkability for different socioeconomic groups. The balance of these factors creates a level of equity in accessibility to affordable, walkable areas that informs our rankings.
The Index reveals areas that are affordable with a comparatively smaller amount of walkable urbanism (i.e. ranked lower on our Foot Traffic Ahead Index) ranked higher in social equity. This included places like Cleveland, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. These cities’ scores were bolstered by higher rankings on the Proximity Index, meaning that the limited walkability that does exist there is not as segregated between socioeconomic and racial groups. Other regions which are more connected by transit and contain higher amounts of walkable urban development but are more expensive, like New York City or Philadelphia, also rank highly on our Social Equity Index with their high scores on the Transit Index giving them a boost. Those regions that are both unaffordable and not well connected or walkable, like Los Angeles and Miami, rank towards the bottom of our Social Equity Index.
Larger, more costly regions need to focus on increasing the accessibility of their walkability by investing in more affordable housing, preserving affordability where it already exists, and adding additional walkable infrastructure where needed. Smaller cities may be benefitting from walkable areas while not yet facing a housing affordability crisis, but need to also safeguard affordability as they invest in more transit and institute policy changes such as zoning reform to improve walkability.
Future Momentum Index
The Future Momentum Index identifies which regions’ markets are improving their walkability, and may be ready to further expand their walkability. This ranking is determined by measuring the market share of walkable urban development, price premiums (indicative of demand), and the distribution of walkability in each region.
This Index was supported by another measurement–standard distance–which calculated the spatial distribution of walkable neighborhoods within a region. In this case, the standard distance was determined by identifying the major employment center in each metro region and determining the ellipse of walkable neighborhoods around that center; the larger the standard distance, the more distributed walkability there is throughout the region. This measurement indicates which metros may be more likely to support continued growth of walkable urbanism; those with larger standard distances rank higher on our Future Momentum Index.
Based on an average of these factors, each of the metros was grouped into four different growth categories:
Bold growth areas included the Boston, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Charlotte, and Miami regions. These regions ranked highly on both our overall Foot Traffic Ahead and Standard Distance Indices, meaning they are rapidly growing their amount of walkable urban places in addition to benefitting from a pre-established network of walkability.
Future vision regions comprise the Atlanta, Baltimore, Nashville, Sacramento, and Dallas–Fort Worth metropolitan areas. These regions ranked below average in our Foot Traffic Ahead Index, but higher than average on our Future Momentum Index. The trend towards walkable urbanism in these areas has an upwards trajectory, with many regions in the Sunbelt region beginning to reinvent their downtowns and other sub-urban areas to include elements of walkable urbanism.
Mature walkable regions include New York, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. These regions are well-established in their development of walkable urbanism, ranking highly on our Foot Traffic Ahead Index, and lower on our Future Momentum Index. In this category, walkable urbanism is stable. This doesn’t mean that these cities couldn’t develop more walkable urbanism, just that their current inventory is higher than average.
Below-average metros include Denver, Cleveland, Houston, Columbus, and Kansas City. These areas rank at the bottom of both our Foot Traffic Ahead and Future Momentum Indices, and have historically implemented less walkability. These regions tend to develop in auto-centric ways, and are located near the center of the country in metro areas with ties to industry.
By looking at how metropolitan areas rank on walkability in the Foot Traffic Ahead ranking, the Social Equity Index, and in terms of Future Momentum, we can see how different regions fare on the varying categories of social equity as relevant to benefitting from walkable urban places as well as gleaning insights into the future. For example, larger, more costly regions may need to focus on increasing the accessibility of their walkability by investing in more affordable housing, preserving affordability where it already exists, and adding additional walkable infrastructure where needed. Smaller cities may be benefitting from walkable areas while not yet facing a housing affordability crisis, but need to also safeguard affordability as they invest in more transit and institute policy changes such as zoning reform to improve walkability.
Spotlight: Cleveland, OH
Cleveland is the most racially diverse city in Ohio being approximately 47% black, 39% white, 11% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. Although the greater Cleveland region hosts a wide dispersion of demographic groups, the population in WalkUPs are similar in terms of income and race with the median household income hovering around $32,000 per year across all demographic groups. Cleveland’s transportation network also serves a range of demographic groups. Conversely, the affordability of the city extends from the center city to the outer rings of the surrounding sub-urban areas. Although Cleveland does not rank in the Top Eight in our Foot Traffic Ahead Index, instead falling into the middle of the pack, the city ranks highest in our Social Equity Index due to its accessible walkable areas and well-connected bus network that serves a wide range of communities.
Spotlight: Portland, OR
The Portland region is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S., with the City of Portland having an average rent of $2,500 per month and an average home price of $430,000. Portland’s transit network is well-connected in the central city but does not serve the outer urban rings, which tend to include comparatively more affordable housing. Portland is also one of the least diverse cities in the U.S. with 75% of the population being white, 10% Hispanic, 6% Black, and 9% Asian. Portland falls in the top tier in our Foot Traffic Ahead Index because of its extensive amount of walkable areas, even outside the inner urban core. The city ranks poorly in our Social Equity Index because this walkability is not proximate to and does not serve a wide range of demographic groups, catering mostly to largely white moderate and high-income households living close to the center city. People of color, low-income individuals, and people without a bachelor’s degree tend to live further from walkable urbanism in this region than other people.
New York City has a cost of living is 80.4% higher than the national average, a median rent just over $3,000 per month, and an average home price of about $630,000. The median household income in New York is approximately $67,000, hovering just below the national average of just over $70,000 per year. If the cost of living is so high and the average income disproportionately low in New York, why did it rank so well in our Social Equity Index? The main reasons for New York’s position are its far-reaching transit network and its accessible walkable areas. New York is an extremely diverse city with 41% of the population being white, 29% Hispanic, 24% Black, and 14% Asian. The city’s population, 56% of which uses New York’s extensive public transit system every day, is well-served by 656 passenger miles, meaning that diverse communities can access the opportunities within walkable areas without relying on car ownership. In many ways, New York is a special case: despite its overall high cost of living, the city outperforms many others in terms of connectivity and proximity to walkability for its diverse population.
Spotlight: Los Angeles, CA
LA is an extremely diverse city with 49% of the population being white, 48% Hispanic, 12% Asian, and 9% Black. The city also has a wide dispersion of walkable places, much of them connected via transit network comprising a metro, bus lines, and a plethora of scooter and bike-sharing services. For these reasons, LA ranked eighth in our Foot Traffic Ahead Index. Despite these characteristics, LA is one of the most inequitable metros in terms of income and affordability. The median cost of a home in the LA metro region is over $670,000, with an average monthly rent of around $1,500. Discrepancies in income are observed between downtown LA and the surrounding metro region. Average household income in neighborhoods outside of the downtown core but still in proximity to walkability—places like South Pasadena and Beverly Crest—fall in the $80,000-$100,000 per year range. Neighborhoods in the center of downtown LA fall far below these income levels, with average median household income in places like West Lake and Florence hovering just above $25,000 per year. These variances in income are highly correlated with race; the lower-income groups living in center-city neighborhoods fall into minority groups while higher-income groups along the outskirts of downtown LA are majority white. Given these patterns, LA falls last in our SEI rankings.
Tampa ranks near the bottom of both our Foot Traffic Ahead and SEI Indices but claims the number one spot in our Future Momentum Index. The city has a fairly interconnected walkable street network, especially along the waterfront and throughout downtown, but this network does not extend to the areas outside of the downtown core. Transit access in Tampa is limited, and routes do not extend outside downtown. Although Tampa is not currently one of the most walkable metros, it has the potential to support increased walkable development. Between 2000 and 2017 Tampa’s downtown population grew by 36%, outpacing the 17% average for other downtowns across the country. Additionally, the Tampa metro region is quite diverse, with a downtown population that is 50% white, 30% Black, and 20% Hispanic or Latino. Mixed-use development in the Tampa metro region has had renewed interest from both city officials and investors as demand pushes the real estate market toward walkability.
Foot Traffic Ahead uniquely brings together data on the built environment, community demographics, and market characteristics using a range of sources. We use government and private sector data sources through year-end 2020 and 2021, as available due to differing data release windows.
Step 1: Defining regions and geographies
For this report, we completed our analysis on the nation’s largest 35 metropolitan regions. Given that the analysis in the report was completed on the Metro Statistical Area (MSA) and Census Block Group (CBG) levels, the first step was to identify how regionally significant an individual CBG was. In this case, MSAs are equivalent to wide regions with a mix of development, walkability levels, and economic activity; CBGs are equivalent to neighborhoods.
Step 2: Defining regional significance
Regional significance was determined by using three alternative tests: 1) seeing if the block group contained a major point of interest such as a military installation, airport, or an institute of higher education with more than 1,000 students; 2) identifying if the block group was in the top 2.5% of the region’s job density or share of GDP or; 3) if the block group had at least 1.2 million square feet of office space or 340,000 square feet of retail space. These three tests are indicative of the block groups’ significance in the region’s wider economy.
Step 3: Defining walkability
The next step was to use existing data to define what block groups in the 35 metros were walkable. This was measured by determining if the block group was in the top 15% of its region based on the National Walkability Index (NWI); if the block group was in the top 15% of its region by Walkable-Oriented Development (WOD) and had intersection density above the national median; or if the block group was in the top 15% of its region by WOD and had a NWI that the EPA considers walkable.
Step 4: Vetting definitions
Next, SGA compiled a team of local experts to “ground truth” the neighborhoods that were identified as walkable, comparing data-based measurements with personal knowledge and experience.
Step 5: Ranking the metros
Finally, the largest 35 MSAs in the country were ranked by weighing each region’s share of walkable block groups. It is important to note that the walkable neighborhood category included neighborhoods with a significant share of Type I and Type II areas. In short, our 35 metros were ranked by the percentage of their real estate inventory (by square footage) that is located in walkable urbanism.
We urge policymakers to consider our recommendations as these policies would likely improve SEI scores and would support housing affordability, improve transit, and bring walkable urban places to communities that currently have to travel far to benefit from these thriving areas and access the job, educational, and economic development opportunities located there.
Grow the supply of walkable urban places.
Walkable urbanism can be fostered and supported in a myriad of ways, but the most important factor in encouraging the development of additional walkable places is fostering non-auto travel. This type of development requires a system of transportation that allows people to access walkable places, even if they don’t live there. Public transportation networks need to have access to multiple modes of travel and mobility, and be expanded to reach the outer corners of more dense, well-connected areas. Investment in practical, safe design for pedestrians is essential in the development of a well-connected transit system.
Advance zoning reform.
Historically, zoning has increased racial and economic segregation in the U.S., dividing cities and fostering less diversity in the built environment by separating land uses, as well as preventing upward social mobility. Zoning reform is critical to developing a wider range of housing types, including more affordable and “missing middle” housing, such as duplexes and small-scale apartment buildings. From implementing form-based codes, to supporting infill and dense development around established transit corridors, regions would do well to expand what can be built.
Plan for future climate impacts.
Climate impacts are already harming communities across the country, and disproportionately impacting communities of color and lower-income communities. Yet, growth continues in many places which are more vulnerable to climate impacts on account of elevation, floodplain location, or Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). To be better prepared for a future that will see increasingly frequent and severe climate events, metropolitan areas should plan for development in locations that are most resilient to climate hazards, as well as update building and planning standards.
Protect & promote affordable housing.
Walkable urbanism thrives when a mix of people from all walks of life enjoy the benefits of amenities it affords. In many U.S. markets, it is challenging for low- and moderate-income households to access the benefits of walkability due to their high prices. Local governments need to both prioritize investing in new affordable housing and preserving existing affordability through strategies such as community land banks, tenants’ rights legislation, financing tools, and other supportive strategies.
Photo by Liz Ligon / Union Square Partnership