The D.C. metropolitan area is a model for the development of walkable cities, but pedestrian-friendly areas come with higher rent costs, a recent report found.
The George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, with others, found that walkability is positively correlated with gross domestic product per capita, workforce education level and general economic performance.
The Foot Traffic Ahead report used Walkscore data on how easy it is in an area to run errands on foot, access public transportation and more.
The District ranks fourth behind New York City, Denver and Boston for most walkable urban real estate, third in population per walkable urban place and fourth in Future Growth Momentum, a measure predicting a region’s future walkability performance.
'The Rent is Too Damn High'
The economic benefits of increased walkability come at a cost, the report says. Rent premiums are more than twice the cost per square foot of drivable suburban space for urban retail and office space, and more than 1.6 times greater for walkable multi-family rental space.
“We're very aware that there's a concern that that means that there might be a gentrifying effect,” said Jordan Chafetz, a co-author of the study and an economic analyst for the advocacy organization Smart Growth America.
Walkable space is greener, cleaner and healthier. Benefits are citywide, so why, study co-author Christopher Leinberger asked, is the rent “too damn high?”
The problem is a disconnect between supply and demand, said Leinberger, a real estate and urban analysis professor at the George Washington University School of Business.
An 'Artificial' Problem
Leinberger said constraints on building walkable space are “artificial,” and called for more affordable housing programs.
Currently, only 2% of land in the D.C. area is walkable, based on Leinberger’s 2016 study “DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call.”
“It does not need to be this way,” he said.
In the long term, metropolitan areas like D.C. need to create more walkable urban land to feed the growing demand, Leinberger said.
“It means putting affordable housing in Bethesda and Reston — places that will fight affordable housing," he said.
Measuring Social Equity
Walkable urban places are not distributed equally. According to Leinberger's D.C study, they tend to be clustered “in the northwest portion of the metropolitan area, which has been metro D.C.’s ‘favored quarter’ since at least World War II.”
Despite the uneven spread, D.C. ranked second in the nation for social equity in walkable urban places — a finding the researchers admitted seemed "counter-intuitive."
A number of factors may explain the high ranking, Chafetz said.
The social equity index is based on cost of housing, cost of transportation and percent renter-occupied housing in a metropolitan area, the study says.
Lower transportation costs in walkable D.C. significantly offset the higher cost of housing compared with other cities, which may also explain the high social equity score, Chafetz said. She explained that the data used to create the rankings — housing and transportation data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology — is based on households making 80% of the median income, which for D.C. is about $66,000 of an $83,000 median, according to Data USA.
“One of the data limitations is just that households making 80% of the area median income also tend to be making a lot,” Chafetz said.
Finally, some D.C. neighborhoods like Petworth and Adams Morgan don’t count in the analysis because they aren’t large enough, Chafetz said.
“To be classified as a walkup, you have to have a certain threshold of a retail square footage to be assumed regionally significant," she said.
The study found correlation between rent premiums and walkability, not causation, the authors warned. They said the link between walkability and social equity needs further study.
Recommendations for city planners include enacting attainable housing programs, ending exclusionary zoning and creating more walkable urban places.
“With the right policies in place,” the study concludes, “there is no inherent tradeoff between doing well and doing good.”