By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
Somerville was honored at WalkBoston’s 25th anniversary gala last week, where I accepted a Golden Shoe Award on behalf of all our community partners who have worked tirelessly to advocate and help us build a walkable community. We are committed to making Somerville the most walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible city in the nation, and the data behind walkable neighborhoods make the benefits clear. Transportation costs for families are lower, while sales for local businesses are higher. By giving people the option of not having to use their cars to run errands, air pollution goes down while our residents’ personal health gets better as they choose to walk more. And the greatest benefit of walkability is perhaps the hardest to measure, but easiest to identify: it creates community.
When you plan for cars, you get parking lots, highways, and lots of faces you might not recognize when they are not behind a windshield or car window. When you plan for people, you get walkable neighborhoods that create vibrant communities, with faces you recognize of people walking, pushing strollers and biking. That is what is drawing droves of people of all ages back from the suburbs to urban neighborhoods. There is undoubtedly a convenience factor. Being able to walk to the neighborhood grocery store or local salon beats having to get in the car, drive there and then find parking. Walking to work, or walking to public transit to get to work, can save people time and money compared to sitting in traffic and listening to honking horns.
Young professionals, families and retirees all seek this kind of convenience. But they also seek the kind of community that’s harder to build when contact with your neighbors and the community is minimized, because running an errand means exiting your home and immediately getting in your car, and then returning to the neighborhood means the same in reverse. So we’re working to build that kind of community, planning for and investing in walkable neighborhoods and communities around the region are joining us.
We’re seeing the effects of these investments. In the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2014 benchmark report, Boston is the number one city in the U.S. for people who walk to work, and Massachusetts is sixth in the state rankings. (And our weather’s not holding us back from being the top state—coming in first was Alaska.) And Boston is also the city with the lowest bicyclist/pedestrian fatality rates, and Massachusetts overall has the seventh lowest rate.
Walkability builds community, and a more resilient local economy. Increased food traffic helps our neighborhoods stores, restaurants, cafes and services flourish. A Brookings Institute study found that a one-level increase on its walkability scale translated to an 80 percent increase in retail sales. Making our region walkable creates an 18-hour economy: active streetscapes supported by workers during the day and residents during the night. And when our businesses are flourishing, our sidewalks, squares and parks fill up with our neighbors, again creating that sense of community.
We’re also building a healthier city. By making it easier for people to accomplish their errands or commute by walking, we’re making it easier for them to opt out of cars and reducing the amount of air pollution. That’s particularly important in Somerville, where approximately 38,000 people live in environmental justice zones and shoulder a disproportionate level of impact caused by traffic and industry. A University of Minnesota study last year found that non-white people inhale 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites, and that Greater Boston has the fourth highest pollution disparity between white and non-white residents. That is why we are studying the effect of pollution on neighborhoods near highways and ways to mitigate that effect, and it’s why we’re working to make our city more walkable. And studies also show that people who live in walkable communities are healthier. That’s a lesson we learned through Shape Up Somerville—if we change the environment we live in, we can the healthy choices the easy choice.
Walkability is about the kind of communities we want to build: Equitable, connected, healthy and convenient for residents. We want to create places where you bump into friends on a street corner, chat with other parents at the neighborhood park, or wave to your barber when you walk by his shop. Economic health then follows suit. Thriving squares filled with busy businesses creates a resilient, self-sufficient economic base for cities, and for the region. We are the most walkable region in the country. Let’s continue to lead the way and be the most walkable state, too.