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Walkable Cities are Good News for Small Business

Cities that support getting out of the car are better for small businesses, and the trend towards walkable cities is only speeding up.

When a city is more walkable—supporting pedestrians with narrower streets, wide sidewalks, and nearby recreational outlets—shops are frequented more often and do far better than those in less walkable areas.

A report issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that “businesses appear to do better in a walkable commercial areas than in areas attracting mainly drive-to patronage.”

Collecting case studies from five cities across the United States—cities that have invested in public transportation or sawed off portions of street lanes for foot traffic—the report also discovered that “walkable retail areas have the potential to attract many people beyond the immediate walking radius.”

Those smaller, walkable centers often mean stronger small businesses, as well. Among the top 20 cities where small businesses saw the most growth in 2012, at least half feature significant pedestrian infrastructure.

A generation ago, city centers were vacated, leading to the development of outlying suburban communities and large retail shopping centers, leaving small businesses behind in their older, urban neighborhoods.

Developers of suburban communities, mindful of that generation's desire for “space,” separated residential areas from commercial ones, making it mandatory to use an automobile even to run simple errands.

“The worst idea we [America] has ever had is suburban sprawl,” said Jeff Speck, city planner and author of “Walkable City,” in a TED Talk.

Where once the car was “an instrument of freedom,” according to Speck, it has since “become a gas belching, time wasting, and life threatening prosthetic device that many of us, most Americans, need just to live their daily lives.” (check out more by Jeff Speck at GOOD.)

On average, Americans spend 25.5 minutes commuting one-way to work. For 8.1 percent of commuters, the drive is 60 minutes or more—one in four also commute from an outside county.

To support living so far from work, an average household spent $2,912 on gas in 2012—or 4 percent of average pretax income, a 30-year high.

For a newer generation, spending that much time in a car and committing a healthy chunk of their income on committing simply doesn't cut it anymore, sparking a migration back into city centers and a funneling of money, previously used for gasoline, back into environments that promote small businesses (known as new urbanism).

It's why, of the 10 U.S. Cities with the best projected Walk Score for 2014—cities like Baltimore, Miami, and New York—seven are also included in the top 50 places most friendly to small businesses.

With small businesses as their backbone, walkable cities are once more rewiring how life, work, and leisure are ordered.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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