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Walkable Cities Enjoy More Freedom (adamsmith.org)
92 points by oftenwrong 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

As a european a non-walkable city seems like an oxymoron to me (although I have travelled extensively in the US so I do know what this is referring to).

A friend of mine lives in the docklands (a new area in east London with a massive amount of new flats, having undergone substantial redevelopment in the last 10 years) and regularly complains about being a 20 minute walk from any shops or retail space.

Why would you want to live in a city that you can't walk around? If you're not going to live near people (and the associated economic/social activity), why not live in the countryside where you get the benefits of space, fresh air and open space as a trade off?

I agree, and have rarely been able to convince my countrymen of this.

I'm in the process of looking at buying a home and increasingly it seems clear that either a dense arrangement or the countryside (if working remotely) are preferable to the burbs, where you get high costs and poor access.

> it seems clear that either a dense arrangement or the countryside (if working remotely) are preferable to the burbs, where you get high costs and poor access.

HOAs are primarily to blame for the high cost and poor access of suburbia. Multiple gated communities all each attempting to create their own "privately-owned by the community" parks and recreation. Aside from HOA fees (which are basically taxes), the gluing together of all these private developments makes "freedom" and walkable / public access an illusion. Homeowners end up double paying and cities' infrastructure suffers from lack of funds.

Density is best if it is done right, but the HOA problem incentives fracture and disconnect. Thus: all public spaces in all densely-planned areas must be publicly-owned. The HOA cannot create walled gardens.

HOA's pale in comparison to zoning in the US.

Zoning is what prevents dense development, mixed development and all the other kinds of development we used to do in the US (not just Europe).

Here's a small example from Bend, where I live:


Zoning is currently being used to squeeze single people out of my town. It should be illegal, but it isn't.

The obvious thing you are missing is that it is developers who want to build rent-producing "income HOAs" ... they are the driver creating the problem. Who else would be lobbying for the kinds of restrictive zoning that creates these problems?

If it were just developers, there wouldn't be the political constituency for it. Also, developers make money whatever kind of market-rate construction they're doing, in a decent market.

If you're interested in the subject, some good takes on it are the books I list here (Zoned in the USA and Zoning Rules!):


Or, if you want to get a very real sense, the next time some apartments get proposed in your town, go to the public hearings and listen to the neighbors rant, rave, froth at the mouth and otherwise raise a hue and cry that life as they know it will not go on if the poor peop...errr, I mean apartments get built anywhere near them.

That's true in the US (where I come from) but less so where I am now (Ireland). The main issue here has been zoning and height restrictions limiting construction of housing near jobs.

Of course, it's not just density - it's the variety of use. I used to live in South Park, San Diego and it was a wonderful neighborhood, even though it wasn't all that dense (mostly single family homes - and gorgeous ones at that). It did, however, have all sorts of retail, dining, parks, housing, and other things in the same neighborhood, so I could still get most of what I needed with a walk. Of course, houses there were not going to be affordable with the incomes we could get in San Diego, because this made it about the best neighborhood in the city.

Actually, that example is illustrative. It would be illegal to build South Park now. Partially because of zoning, but also because of parking requirements and traffic "engineering" (to use the term rather generously). All those little cottages would be surrounded by asphalt (mandatory parking minimums), not gardens, and the streets would be three times as large (gotta ram fire trucks through at 45mph after all!)

That being said, it wasn't perfect. I went to the community planning meetings (at 5:00 in the evening, so it was mostly retirees) and was usually the only person defending planned new bike lanes.

There is probably some sort of follow-on effect of HOAs, but of course the original tastelessness was that of property developers. They didn't analyze the market to figure out what homebuyers wanted. Instead they figured out what they could build cheap, and convinced ignorant people to buy that. Once a family has made its one truly large investment in a shit way of life, they don't need an HOA to suggest the sunk cost fallacy.

The developer wants to minimize risk. The homebuyers will choose what they prefer:

a. Without an HOA, every home is well-kept like a postcard. (possibly most desired, but unlikely to happen)

b. With an HOA, every home is well-kept like a postcard. (acceptable)

c. Without an HOA, some homes have a "redneck" or "ghetto" look. (undesirable)

d. With an HOA, every home has a "redneck" or "ghetto" look. (won't happen)

The only rational choice for the developer is "b". If they try for "a", they might only sell a few houses before somebody makes the place look threatening. That drives down the selling price for the nearby lots. The lower selling price may even increase the chance of having buyers who will also make a threatening-looking mess.

I wish it weren't so. I hate how all modern housing has HOAs. Without some very unlikely changes in the law, we're stuck with the situation.

You've explained why there are HOAs, and your explanation makes sense, but it doesn't address my point. GP was complaining that HOAs cause shit neighborhoods, which from a temporal perspective is unlikely. HOAs don't exist before homes get built. Cheap-ass, insufficiently-regulated property developers build shit neighborhoods (and, as you observe, often set up the HOAs that infest them). HOAs are merely the crabs in the bucket, pulling down neighbors who attempt to live better lives in the horrible suburban neighborhoods that already exist.

> Homeowners end up double paying and cities' infrastructure suffers from lack of funds.

How can these both be true?

Well HOA fees go to things like maintenance of roads, maintenance of community-owned spaces (landscaping, parks, etc). When HOA fees are high covering all these things the city's taxes would normally cover, the cities have less money all around. Fractured spaces glued together.

It's basically siphoning money that would be going to public infrastructure to make private infrastructure. There's also statistical evidence that people running the boards of these HOAs don't actually select the most value-oriented bidders, they reward their family and friends.

Edit sorry, old bookmark nevermind the link.

Do you by any chance live near St. Louis? b^)

Commute distance? To get to "the country" in most north american cities you need to live 2+ hours from downtown, so it's not feasible if you work there.

I live in an urban, walkable area, to be clear, so I'm not entirely sure of the motives.

There are real "country" areas within a reasonable commuting distance (much less than 2 hours) of San Jose. Of course the land is quite expensive but if you've got the money it's totally possible to own a small farm or piece of forest.

Within 20 miles of somewhere like Portland for that matter. My in-laws live in the Portland burbs and everything between their house and the next town is farmland.

So don't work down town?

That's typically where the best jobs are (or maybe even the only jobs, depending on industry).

That all depends on how you rank jobs for "best" status, including cost of living, nuisance of living environment, commute, socializing preferences, and effect on your family. For many, those costs and environmental factors quickly negate any wage differences compared to living and working even just a few miles outward from downtown.

The suburbs are a happy medium. I have a nice yard, a quiet neighborhood, and can drive to any amenity I'd ever want in under 30 minutes.

In the USA, quality of schools are another big plus for the suburbs over both rural and urban areas.

I enjoy being able to walk for pleasure in relative privacy and quiet, while still having full access to everything.

If I want to get to a purposeful destination, I get in the car and have a quick (usually well under 10 minutes) drive to go to places which do not intrude into my personal life, space, and attention until I choose to go there.

I do live in the big local non-walkable metropolis (5M+ population), in a cheap area, but I still have my elbow room, relaxed immediate environment, and quick & full access to everything. I certainly don't want to live where everything is right in my face and in my ears all the time.

For many people in the US, the nearest truly walkable city is literally hours away by car.

Her statement is kinda strange that "socialist projects are unwalkable", and whole libertarian fixation on the everything Soviet, keeping in mind that Soviet cities are very, very walkable but becoming less so, because after the fall of USSR zoning rules became less strict.

USSR cities used to be very walkable and very public transportation oriented because they were built with low personal car ownership in mind. And that was the reality until the iron curtain fell and imported cars flooded the market.

Can you provide an example? Moscow definitely became much more walkable in the last ~20 years, mostly thanks to the private development as well as state-run infrastructure.

I do not like sharing my location, but where I live, the city is becoming more car-oriented, they began to put commercial buildings into the inner courtyards, and ugly in-fill condo buildings where they do not belong.

"socialist/Soviet" probably means "1950s-1970s", when monolothic block projects were popular. In the USA, Robert Moses was the engine of this movement, that was very pro-car / anti-transit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Moses

Also related, the Brutalist design that favored gigantic concrete polygons over more multi-scale human-friendly designs https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brutalist_architecture

The city has been renovation my neighborhood for the last few years to make it more walkable, they redid the sidewalks on the "main" side street a while back and now they're doing the smaller streets. The "main" street is where they do a monthly art walk kind of thing that draws quite a few people and there's been a surge of massive block-sized apartment buildings going up so now there's also a bunch of restaurants there too. There's a whole lot more foot traffic in the area than when I moved here 6-something years ago.

Have mixed feelings about the giant apartment buildings since they're pricey which means the restaurants are also pricey, well out of my meager price range. On a side note, I was talking to a kid who's girlfriend lives in one of the new apartment buildings and he was saying she has to rent it out on Airbnb half the month (and stay at her moms) to afford the rent.

The city renovated my neighborhood recently as well. It's much more walkable with a street turned into a park, the expensive new apartments, and equally expensive restaurants.

I'm all for the density. I already have a nice place that's much cheaper than the apartments. I eat-in mostly to save money. Now, my nightly walks will be more interesting. My options have expanded when I do go out.

Your friend might have to consider roommates, a cheaper place, or staying with their parents. If they're renting their own apartment six months a year to afford it, then they can't.

> Your friend might have to consider roommates, a cheaper place, or staying with their parents. If they're renting their own apartment six months a year to afford it, then they can't.

Yeah, I was like "huh, what's even the point?"

I live 3 blocks away and pay less than half for a two-bedroom with the best landlord ever.

Giant apartment buildings aren't pricey. New construction is pricey.

Why are Le Corbusier's giant buildings worse than Barcelona's superblocks?

Barcelona's are shorter, include a variety of buildings per block, and are generally ringed by retail. Example: http://www.densityatlas.org/user-images/139-1.jpg

Le Corbusier was building single taller buildings, surrounded by empty lawns. Example: http://scd.france24.com/en/files/imagecache/france24_ct_api_...

I live in ex-USSR and Soviet urban planning was a mix of both approaches.Sadly, today they are building up in a chaotic way, because corruption.

Define "freedom."

(the article does not do this, by the way)

Go home.

Take out your wallet.

Take out the driver's license, and put it on your dinner table.

Put your wallet back in your pocket.

Now, step outside your home and go buy a gallon of milk.

That's my criterion.

Wait...you go to some third party to get milk? What kind of freedom is that? You have to rely on the will of the shop owner to remain open and to have fresh milk stocked.

For me, personally, I would just milk one of the cows that live on my property. Now, that's real freedom.

A gallon? You're not free unless you can specify a metric unit!

I swear the Empire will die long before imperial units do!

I don't have a driver's license, and phone with Uber on it is still in my pocket. Am I free?

Only if you have the money to pay for Uber every time you need a gallon of milk.

I usually pay for it being delivered to me instead.

Must be nice to have the freedom of disposable income.

If you don't have a driver's license, and you're still living how you want to live, then you can't be threatened by the prospect of losing that driver's license.

A lot of people in this country literally cannot fetch milk without a license from the government. You are free. I am free. They are not.

Your question is very myopically mid/large city centric. Think of it in the context of someone without a smartphone or money - particularly low income neighborhoods.

They have the freedom to walk. If these people can't afford Uber I don't think they can afford a car either.

.....what? Either you're incredibly sheltered, you've never left a large city, or you're a troll. That doesn't match any reality that I know of.

What if I want a gallon of a drink that isn't subsidized by my taxes? I'm not free to buy the drink I want because I'm forced to pay for milk whether I drink it or not.

I think the author meant free political expression. If you think about it most political activism (at least of the in the streets variety) happens in dense urban areas.

The author also makes a few contradictions.

They need less surveillance because there's more "eyes" on the ground, and yet the biggest walkable cities that come to mind, nyc and London are the most heavily surveiled on the planet.

big walkable urban areas also happen to be less safe from crime, rather than safer as the author asserts.

> big walkable urban areas also happen to be less safe from crime, rather than safer as the author asserts.


population density ("urbanness") correlates with crime rate. "Big" and "walkable" do not, as far as I know. https://nycdatascience.com/blog/student-works/pressure-cooke...

How do you tease them out though? The walkability guys are talking about making living spaces denser, after all.

Dunno, NYC is safer than many, many non-walkable cities.

You definitely need a citation if you're going to make a claim like walkable areas are less safe from crime.

However, we've also legalized killing people with your car if it's an accident (or you can plausibly claim such). It's not technically a crime, but it's still a bummer.

The US has around 32000ish auto deaths a year.


It has around 15000ish murders per year


I suppose that a few of those are vehicular homicide, but most aren't.

I quite like not being killed while I walk or cycle, and it looks like it makes sense to focus on not getting killed by cars.

>That’s all fine, but who pays? It’s true that large-scale urban redevelopment projects can be very expensive. However, engaging with private capital has proven to be a viable strategy both in and outside of the UK.

>Few years ago, when I was serving as an elected official in Moscow, I was the only outspoken YIMBY in my district. Once at the public hearings I was even accused of being bribed by the developer — just because I supported a private park project!

So this is just a play to privatize public land? I like walkable areas and I really like areas that anyone can walk in. Who cares how walkable a space is when your ability to actually walk there is subject to the whims of a private individual?

"Privately owned public spaces" do indeed have a pretty mixed history... but if projects can be structured in such a way as to let a private entity provide support for public land, the results can be fantastic.

The Central Park Conservancy or Bryant Park Corporation in NYC are great examples - public land, managed and principally funded by private entities, going way beyond what a public parks department could ever hope to accomplish on their own.


POPS projects can work if the government enforces them properly. They aren't replacements for public parks, but are better than nothing on a block that might otherwise not have any public space at all - and even public parks can benefit from private investment and control if done properly. Both the city and developers though should avoid the trap of thinking a POPS is a substitute for a public park. They serve different purposes.

Another example: Occupy Wall Street was forced out of Zuccotti Park repeatedly for trespassing. That's because it's not really a public space.

OWS was easily the most visible public protest in decades, going on for two months. Not sure that example exactly supports your thesis.

Cities frequently limit opening hours for public parks and force out people who are present after hours.

"About half of the privately owned plazas are required to be open 24 hours a day, according to the Department of City Planning." This includes Zuccotti Park. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/14/nyregion/zuccotti-park-is-...

Edit: you know what, I'm not going to get into it here... it was years ago and people can look up what happened if they're interested.

as someone who was once part of various eco-activism movements, you really start to notice all the privately owned public places. Usually, all political rallies or demonstrations are not allowed there. I think this is really unhealthy for the society, as activism and rallies etc. are an important part of the political discourse. Public places need to stay public to allow them to reflect all the facets of society. Homeless people don't disappear because you ban them, pollution doesn't disappear because you ban public stunts trying to get the focus of the society, rallies raisinw awareness about the limitation of personal freedoms, surveillance etc.

Living in a bubble of happiness is not the reality for most people and it's getting easier and easier to either don't notice or purposely ignore it.

I understand you view, but a place only governed by law and not by private motives is something very valuable.

There's plenty of examples of private spaces that have to remain open to the public. Usually it's done to get a zoning variance. An example: Trump Tower's lobby :)

Here's an example of a 'privatized' but urban walkable village with 'public' spaces in Silicon Valley:


It's pretty nice and seems like it'd be a nice place to live but I haven't lived there nor have a talked with anyone who has.

If you want to try it, there is a Hotel that is part of it.

The whole thing is definitely walkable, but ultimately it just feels like an outdoors shopping mall to me.

The people who live at Santana Row generally like it … which isn't surprising since they're affluent enough to live somewhere else if they wanted to. Although it's entirely artificial it is a nice place to live with low crime (private security), decent property maintenance, lots of retail close by, and easy access to major roads.

Presumably this park would have been built on private land, so it wasn't going to "privatize" any public land.

Having lived in Boston/Cambridge and a bunch of "middle of nowhere" cities in places where the weather means you stay inside a lot during certain parts of the year I disagree with the premise of this article.

More people in the same or less space leads to less freedom. Walking doesn't have that much to do with it.

"Having never lived in a truly big city I don't really understand why would anyone walk to anywhere, as such more density necessarily means more traffic".. Ok I filtered a bit with what I actually understood... still, you should try living in a really big city, preferably outside of north-america and see what "walkability" really means in it's natural environment.

Boston/Cambridge is one of the most walkable cities in North America–it's much closer to the European model than the typical North American city.

I still don't get what the grandparent is on about though. I live in Boston, and it's pretty great. I feel free to live my life the way I want here, as opposed to being forced into owning a car and drive it everywhere.

The neighborhoods and downtown in Boston can be nice and walkable. But if you want to get around to places around the city, the Boston T has an average speed of about 10 mph [1]. A decent subway system can take you to places at more like 30 mph. NYC subway does about 15 mph [2]. D.C. metro does 30 mph [3].

(Not talking about the train top speed, but the average speed, including stops and acceleration, along the whole line.)

[1] For the Green line: http://walkingbostonian.blogspot.com/2015/01/taking-look-at-...

[2] https://www.nyctransitforums.com/topic/17313-subway-system-a...

[3] https://ggwash.org/view/4524/average-schedule-speed-how-does...

No doubt the T could be better, but comparing the green line is very misleading. It's an above ground street trolley for a lot of its route, and it's much older than any of those other systems. The other Boston subway lines are proper light rail systems that move much faster.

The red line e.g. runs at 20 mph[1]. The problem with the red line are the age of the rolling stock and signal equipment and their tendency to catch on fire.

[1]: http://www.bostonologist.org/feed/2015/1/29/speed

Density means access to more things/people with the same or less resources (walking is significantly cheaper than driving). That's what freedom is.

Driving gives you access to things/people more than 1 mile away, without paying huge sums of time, the only finite resource in your life.

I would disagree that the time cost of using a private vehicle is not huge.

The average annual cost of owning and operating a private vehicle is about $8,500[1].

The median personal income in the US is about $31,000[2].

Clearly, for a large part of the population, a good proportion of their working hours are spent paying for transportation. They are "paying huge sums of time".

If you are only bringing in the median income, not being obliged to run a car is a massive advantage. Yes, of course you will miss out on some things such as going camping on the weekend but if this were really important to you then hiring a car specifically for this purpose would be a good option.

[1] https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/pu...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_...

It's not about the distance. It's about the number and diversity of things that you have access to.

If you have access to 10 identical Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants with a 10 minutes drive, you have less access than if you have access to 10 very different restaurants with a 10 min walk as it's typically the case in a dense city center.

I agree that the relevant metric is time. In a dense environment, you typically have access to more and more diverse things than in a less dense, car dependent suburban environment, in the same amount of time.

Since I can't edit my original comment I'll elaborate here.

Population density is the dominant term in the freedom equation. I think wealth is more dominant than walk-ability Walk-ability is in there too but it on becomes something worth caring about when density and wealth are controlled for. Walk-ability can be the deciding factor when comparing freedom in place A to place B only if and B are of similar density and wealth.

If you have two cities that are very similiar except one is more walkable the walkable one will have more freedom because owing a car in either of those places is going to be so burdensome (cost of ownership, time spent going out of your way to comply with some car related law, e.g. moving it for street sweeping, finding parking, etc) as to be a net decrease in personal freedom compared to walking.

To get to a high enough density where walk-ability becomes a serious concern you've already given up a lot of freedom in other ways.

For example, in a city that's less dense than Boston, like Worcester (a couple hours outside Boston depending on traffic, I'm picking a city in the same state to control for outside variables) you don't need to be in the 90% income percentile to buy a house. Owning your own house/property increases your freedom because you don't have a landlord. You can remodel the place, paint it funny colors, smoke inside, have pets, etc. If you reduce density to the point where you have off street parking you get even more freedom. You can have a motorcycle and a commuter car. You can have a little trailer you use to buy stuff at home depot (or wherever). Someone who's handy can use that freedom to be much more efficient with their money. Instead of paying someone you can go buy and install a shower insert (or whatever) and remodel that bathroom yourself. Yes, I know you could rend a Uhaul or whatever but that adds friction and cost.

Even still, in the city you probably don't have the freedom to throw parties or restore an old sailboat under a carport because people will complain. That can be solved by moving a little further out to the suburbs but this is where wealth starts entering the equation. If you move to a "nicer" (wealthier) suburb you still won't be allowed to do those things. HOAs, community standards, bylaws, etc will prevent you from or add significant friction that makes it more expensive (time, money or $other, choose any metric, you can convert them all to each other on some level) what you want on your own personal property or within your own home. Solution: pick a "less nice" suburb where nobody will blink twice at parties or a partially restored boat under a car port or move even further out. Even in an area that's borderline rural/suburb there's things you can't do without a high likelihood of causing yourself trouble. If riding ATVs hunting, target shooting or anything else that makes a heck of a lot of noise is your thing you really aren't free to do those things unless you live way, way out in the boondocks.

Lower density and "less nice" neigborhoods have trade-offs. Less density, fewer jobs (potentially less economic freedom), fewer services (you need to spend your time/money making up for that, e.g. taking your trash to the dump), fewer choices on where to buy groceries, more time spent traveling, etc etc. In a less nice neighborhood you might be able to throw a party but you might have to put up with listening to the police break up someone else's party at 1am.

With regard to walkability specifically, as density goes down the cost of owning a car goes down (e.g typical cost of/time spent looking for of parking in Houlton, ME:$0, 0min, Miami, FL: >$0, >0min) so depending on one's personal values/priorities there's a point (for most people it's probably on street vs off street parking) where a car becomes a net increase in freedom as opposed to a net decrease in freedom. The bigger the cost of a car the more walk-ability and other transit matters.

If you want to be a city mouse and going to bars, museums, buying fancy ethnic food from a local grocer, etc is you thing that's fine but equating lots of local options for those activities (regardless of the mode of transportation you use to get to them) with freedom is a really, really narrow view of what personal freedom is. You're also ignoring (or not aware of) a lot of stuff that you are trading off when living somewhere densely populated (partly because those tradeoffs do not affect you ability to pursue your interests) that other people with other priorities would see as a reduction of personal freedom.

For people who want to spend their free time doing something that can't be done easily/cheaply/well in the city walk-ability is not something that has a large impact on their perceived level of personal freedom.

If your personal preferences line up in a way that causes walk-ability to make your life better then you will perceive it as increasing freedom. To get to that point at all you're living somewhere dense enough that you have made trade-offs in your living style that other people with other preferences would call a decrease in freedom.

Walk-ability is a positive to some and inconsequential to others.

This is kind of a rant but oh well, making it much more cohesive than it is is beyond the point of diminishing returns.

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