It’s been a season of bad transportation news for Boston, but last week a new report delivered this superlative: Boston is on its way to becoming the most walkable metropolitan area in the country.
The report was written by Christopher Leinberger at George Washington University in collaboration with researchers at the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University. It identified 57 “walkable urban places,” or “WalkUPs,” in and around Boston. These range from neighborhoods in the heart of the city, such as Back Bay and the West End, to Assembly Row in nearby Somerville to as far away as downtown Fall River. These places are all easy to navigate on foot and contribute significantly to the region’s economy. Most importantly, though, they make the Boston area attractive to the kinds of highly skilled workers every American city is trying to attract.
Boston is currently the third most walkable metro region in the country, behind Washington, D.C., and New York, as measured by the percentage of real estate located in walkable areas. It’s beating both those cities, though, in the percentage of new construction in walkable places. Twenty years ago, 27 percent of new construction in the Boston area took place in walkable urban areas. Today it’s 46 percent, which puts Boston on pace to surpass Washington and New York in walkability in the next few years. (Though we think of New York as exceptionally walkable, 92 percent of its walkable urbanism is located on Manhattan, which has just 1 percent of the region’s land area.)
This trend has big economic implications. “Walkable urban places have among the highest GDP per capita in the country,” says Leinberger. The difference in GDP between walkable cities such as Boston and more car-based cities such as Orlando, he notes, is similar to the economic disparity between Germany and Romania. Walkable urban real estate generates 12 times more property tax revenue and costs on average 34 percent more than drivable suburban real estate.
Boston is doing well at developing walkable urban areas, but not well enough. The soaring real estate market is evidence of the imbalance between supply and demand in the region’s most desirable, walkable neighborhoods. There were only about 5,000 new housing units built in the entire metro area last year. To meet demand, Leinberger estimates that number should have been closer to 40,000, and he says the gap owes largely to zoning laws. “It really comes down to a combination of NIMBY opposition and the fact that it’s illegal in most parts of the region to build high density walkable urban product,” he says.
For now, Boston’s economy is growing even if it’s housing stock is not. But Leinberger warns that eventually the city’s tight real estate market will become a drag.
“The creative class, young millennials, the highly educated, they’re demanding walkable urban places,” he says. “If you don’t give it to them, they’re going someplace else.”