These 5 U.S. Metropolises Are Evolving Beyond the Car

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NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27: People walk through Union Square on March 27, 2014 in New York City. According to estimates released on Thursday by the United States Census Bureau, New York City's population has increased by more than 61,000, pushing it past 8.4 million for the first time since population records have been kept. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 27: People walk through Union Square on March 27, 2014 in New York City. According to estimates released on Thursday by the United States Census Bureau, New York City’s population has increased by more than 61,000, pushing it past 8.4 million for the first time since population records have been kept. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If you grew up in a big city like New York, it’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that you learned how to navigate the city via mass transit before you ever sat behind the wheel of a car. Cities, by their very nature, are often easily walkable; the average resident might walk to their local grocery store, to the movies, to the museum, you name it. In New York, it’s pretty likely that you can get there from here without ever setting foot inside a car.

But historically, anyway, American cities have lagged behind their European cousins when it comes to walkability. Indeed, only the densest of American metropolitan areas have a reputation for comprehensive mass transit systems and ease of walkability. It won’t surprise many to hear that New York, or Chicago are great cities for going car-less; but what about the rest of America’s metropolises? Further, why should we care how “walkable” our cities are?

Well, for one, American cities are growing, and rapidly, which means that even sprawling metropolises like Los Angeles or Las Vegas will need to re-think the way they approach their growth. According to a 2010 U.S. Census, 80.7% of the American population lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to continue to rise in the next few decades, with experts at the World Health Organization predicting that by 2030 6 out of every 10 people will be living in cities. By 2050, that number is expected to climb even higher, up to 7 out of every 10 people.

America’s cities are changing in more ways than just population growth — however, and as climate change continues to have a worsening effect on the world around us, it is increasingly important that the places where we live are easily navigable without a car. Some American metropolitan areas are already fairly easy to navigate without a car, while many others suffer from sprawling suburbs, are poorly integrated, and require long commutes, often in heavy traffic.

In recent years, urban planning experts have put a new emphasis on diverse, multi-use urban spaces which allow an increased level of walkability. In this article, we explore the results of a recent study conducted by the Georgetown School of Business in partnership with Smart Growth America, which ranked the top 30 U.S. metropolises in order from most walkable to least based on a number of criteria, including the city’s office and retail space, walkability score (via WalkScore.com), availability of rail transit, per capita GDP, as well as population data.

The study defines a “walkable urban area,” or WalkUP as “characterized by much higher density and a mix of diverse real estate types, connected to surrounding areas via multiple transportation options, such as bus and rail, bike routes, and motor vehicles. For those living or visiting a walkable urban place, everyday destinations such as home, work, school, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.”

Some of the study’s results may surprise you. Sure, all of the hyper urban areas you’d expect are there — New York, for instance, but many aren’t quite as pedestrian friendly as you might initially imagine, and still other, smaller metropolises take some of the ranking’s highest spots. Still more intriguingly, the study predicted future rankings of the same 30 metropolises and found some interesting (and unexpected) trends.

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