Now that walkability is universally recognized as the single most important quality for a prospective home, it’s hard to imagine that it was ever any other way. I mean, it just seems so obvious – why wouldn’t you want to live ten minutes from bars and restaurants and your job? Why would you ever voluntarily live anywhere that required you to drive every day? And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that the very people who are shelling out $2 million to live at 14th and P coveted the no-sidewalks, McMansion-on-a-huge-lot, ninety-minute-commute suburban lifestyle. And that’s not to say they were wrong, necessarily. It all comes down to personal preferences. But zooming out the ol’ historical lens does make you wonder if ‘walkability’ will pass into the dustbin eventually too.
To answer this question, we have to determine what led to the rise of walkability. An often overlooked factor is that walkability is a recent phenomenon because, for most cities, it wasn’t until the past five or ten years that there was any place worth walking to. When people talk about walking to restaurants or bars, there’s a subtext there. The kinds of restaurants and bars that tend to crop up in the “village-style” development generally have their roots in the early 2000s artisanal movement, when cocktail bars and farm-to-table restaurants first appeared. (A cultural development that grew out of a certain subculture’s rejection of corporate mass production – as in most aesthetic advances, things you like today were invented by hipsters like eight years ago.) No one’s buying a million-dollar condo in the city center so they can walk to Applebee’s for dinner.
Another factor that’s often discussed is the cost of oil. For decades, urbanists insisted that when oil prices rose so high that driving became too expensive, sprawl would retract. And oil prices were high at the beginning of the “walkability era.” But since the summer of 2014, they’ve tumbled almost 75%, and over that period people have continued to pour into city centers. Another piece of the puzzle is wages, which have badly stagnated. It doesn’t matter if gas is 99 cents a gallon if you haven’t gotten a raise in almost forty years. (Which is essentially what’s happened with the American economy since 1980 – productivity has skyrocketed, but wages have stayed flat.) Not only does this literally put less money in people’s pockets, it also forces them to delay major life decisions, like getting married, buying a home, and having children. This last change, especially, has led to the rise of city centers. The US birth rate has been declining since 2007 – a year which, not coincidentally, could serve as the dawn of the “walkability era.” If you don’t have kids, you’re not moving to the suburbs. And if you’re going to be single and childless until your forties, aesthetics and lifestyle suddenly matter a lot more. Of course, economics doesn’t explain everything. Americans are more concerned than ever with sustainability; it’s reasonable to assume that many people who could afford cars have given them up voluntarily for reasons of environmental responsibility. I’d assume that these are the same sort of people who walk to cocktail bars and hip restaurants. Embracing walkability is the most reasonable response to the environmental crisis (which is also why it’s so strange that it’s been wholeheartedly embraced by Americans).
And so, for walkability to fall out of fashion would depend on some or all of the above factors reversing. Will they? Doubtful. Oil prices can’t go much lower, and now that OPEC has made fracking unprofitable through their price war, they’re set to rise again pretty sharply. Wages could rise, but since their stagnation wasn’t tied to any larger economic malaise – i.e. our employers made a conscious decision not to give us a raise when they could have – a wages recovery depends on those same decision makers voluntarily loosening the purse strings. Unlikely. Birth rate? Possible, but on the other hand, it’s become much more acceptable these days for people to simply opt out of parenthood. And if you look at the most advanced economies, in Western Europe and Asia, one of the things they have in common is their dangerously low birth rates. And then there’s the environment. The information we have isn’t encouraging, but who knows? Maybe someone will invent a clean, infinite source of energy (my money’s on thorium). But the “glass half empty” version of that statement is, “maybe we’ll be saved by a miracle!” Which is to say, we’re probably screwed.
Well, the planet is. You aren’t, if you own a nice close-in rowhome near a strip of upscale restaurants and kitschy bars; looks like your investment is going to be juuuuuuust fine.