Downtown Silver Spring.

Downtown Silver Spring.

Could living in a walkable neighborhood help young residents improve their socioeconomic status?

A report from the University of Virginia suggests that the answer to that question is “yes.”

Researchers examined the economic outcomes of more than three million Americans, and they found that people who grew up in walkable areas were more likely to be able to move from the bottom to the top of the income spectrum.

Why is that? And how do these results and other research on walkability apply to the D.C. region? We’ll discuss.

Produced by Margaret Barthel


  • Nick Buttrick Doctoral Candidate in Social Psychology, University of Virginia
  • Tracy Hadden Loh Fellow, Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking, the Brookings Institution; @busysparrow


  • 12:00:20

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome, later in the broadcast why more and more neighborhood groups in this region are trying to buy nothing and instead exchange or barter amongst themselves for the items they need.

  • 12:00:34

    KOJO NNAMDIBut first a tail of two kinds of mobility, literal and figurative, walkability and social mobility, a report from the University of Virginia indicates that living in walkable places helps young people move up the economic ladder and even surpass their parents' economic success. Why would being able to walk or take public transit to work, school and basic errands have that effect, and what might it mean for people and policy in the D.C. region? Joining me in studio is Tracy Hadden Loh. She's a Fellow at the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at the Brookings Institution. Tracy, good to see you again.

  • 12:01:11

    TRACY HADDEN LOHGood to be back, Kojo.

  • 12:01:12

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Nick Buttrick, Doctoral Candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. Nick Buttrick, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:20

    NICK BUTTRICKThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:21

    NNAMDINick, how did you come up with the idea to study the connection between walkability and upward mobility? It's not exactly an obvious connection on the surface.

  • 12:01:31

    BUTTRICKYeah. So this is something that comes out of some work that our lab has been looking at for many years. We're really interested in how sort of place and space and the way that people organize themselves affects the way that they think and they see about the world. So we think a lot about things like residential mobility. We think about how sort of things like population density and the way that people interact with each other and sort of focusing the way that they think about other parts of the world. And walkability is sort of one of these things, which is really important when you think about how people are organized in space.

  • 12:02:03

    BUTTRICKSo in more walkable areas people see each other more often and people are sort organized differently than they are a place like a suburb. And so we started thinking about does the fact that spatial organization is different in these places have an effect for things that matter such as upward mobility.

  • 12:02:21

    NNAMDISo what did you discover and did your findings surprise you?

  • 12:02:25

    BUTTRICKI think they did surprise us. So we did find that people, who are born in more walkable cities end up much more likely to climb the economic ladder than those who are not. So the more walkable your city is the more likely somebody born in that city to a parent who is sort of lower SES, who has lower social economic status is more likely to raise up the economic ladder by early adulthood. And I think the magnitude of the effect was much larger than we were expecting. That walkable cities seem like they really really help people, even above and beyond things that might otherwise matter. So, yeah, we were very surprised.

  • 12:03:03

    NNAMDIBefore we get too much farther, let's define some of these terms. What is walkability and what is upward mobility?

  • 12:03:10

    BUTTRICKSo we think about walkability in sort of two different ways. So the most basic way is how easy is it for you to live your life without a car? So is it easy for you to get to say a job or to a supermarket without having to drive yourself, but walkability also is sort of how easy is it literally to walk around? Does your city allow for that by having, you know, good sidewalks, sort of intersections that are well lit? And is there good public transit? Is it easy for you to get across town without having to worry about things like parking?

  • 12:03:41

    BUTTRICKAnd then for upward social mobility we think about it in terms of how easy is it for you to do better than your parents? And we especially are interested in people who are born to parents who run sort of the lowest quintile of the economic strata, so parents who are really doing far less well than your average American. And if you're born into that sort of household, how easy is it for you to reach the top of the ladder? I think that's a really good measure of how mobile a society can really be. Can you get from the bottom to the top within one generation?

  • 12:04:11

    NNAMDINick, we should note that the scope of your study was pretty big. Information from more than three million Americans; is that correct?

  • 12:04:18

    BUTTRICKActually we have data in one of studies from over nine million Americans. So we were very lucky to be able to take advantage of some data sets that were built by a series of economists from Harvard, who managed to track down the tax records of every American born between 1980 and 1982 and then to match those with their parents. So they know exactly how well their parents were doing in the mid-80s and then they were able to later go back and see how those children were doing 30 years later. And so we sort of took advantage of that data and were able to look at how walkability affected the ability of children to raise up after 30 years.

  • 12:04:57

    NNAMDII mentioned earlier that Tracy Hadden Loh is joining us in studio. She's a Fellow at the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at the Brookings Institution. Tracy, what was your initial reaction to Nick's findings? Does the connection he draws between walkable neighborhoods and economic success ring valid to you?

  • 12:05:14

    LOHAbsolutely. I was very excited to see the study because it's very consistent with the findings of my own research with my collaborator, Chris Leinberger at George Washington University.

  • 12:05:25

    NNAMDIThis study takes a pretty broad look at walkability and social mobility across the country. Do you think the core relation between the two would still hold true if you looked at it on a neighborhood by neighborhood level here in D.C., if you compared Anacostia to Georgetown?

  • 12:05:42

    LOHSo I actually think that the connection is probably even stronger than what Nick found in his study. So what Nick looked at in his study are areas called commuting zones, which in the United States are pretty big. So the entire continental U.S. for example is covered by only like 800, you know, some commuting zones. My research focuses on much much smaller areas, smaller even than what you might think of as a neighborhood, so instead of thinking about all of Anacostia, for example, looking only at historic downtown Anacostia.

  • 12:06:13

    LOHSo looking at the scale at which people actually walk, which might be only a quarter mile or half a mile. So when we look at those extremely small areas, what we find is extremely extremely powerful effects in terms of how desirable people find those areas and what they're willing to do in order to locate their households or their enterprises within those areas.

  • 12:06:37

    NNAMDIYou have looked pretty extensively at walkable places yourself. How common are they in general and here in this D.C. Metro region?

  • 12:06:46

    LOHSo unfortunately in the United States walkable urban places are actually extremely scarce. So even in the D.C. area where, you know, you can probably think of 20, 50, 100 neighborhoods off the top of your head that are super walkable, the reality is that that's actually less than five percent of the land area within our region. And the number of people who have the opportunity and who get to live and work in those places is -- it's not nearly a majority of the population.

  • 12:07:19

    NNAMDIIs it fair to say that walkable neighborhoods and the demand for them are growing?

  • 12:07:24

    LOHAbsolutely. So we look specifically at trends in our real estate research. And what we see is that there is extremely strong demand for walkable urban places both by employers and by households looking for places to live. But we also see that that demand is actually growing stronger with time. And that's a trend that we've been observing since the beginning of this real estate cycle in 2010.

  • 12:07:51

    NNAMDIAre there some examples? Can you give us some examples of places that would qualify as walkable in this area?

  • 12:07:57

    LOHSure if you want to think about in D.C. think about, for example, what's happened on H Street in terms of growth, in terms of new real estate and in terms of growth in prices over that last 10 to 20 years. And then even in the suburbs, think about what's happening in a place like Silver Spring, which has been totally transformed over the past 15 years with a lot of new housing and a lot of new investments to make downtown Silver Spring more walkable.

  • 12:08:26

    NNAMDIWell, if you think of say downtown Bethesda, downtown Silver Spring, we think of these places now more as downtowns than we do as suburbs. Is it possible to have a walkable suburb?

  • 12:08:39

    LOHWell, that's a great question. And, you know, I think the D.C. region is really at the forefront nationwide in the U.S. in terms of urbanizing its suburbs. And that is in part because of restrictions on development within the actual district, urban core, and also in part because there is -- you know, we do have the Metro rail system supporting mass transit connecting our suburbs, and will soon have the Purple Line connecting our suburbs directly to each other. So it is possible for not just households but also employers to locate lots and lots of jobs in the suburbs. And so you see really really major employers creating big job centers out in the suburbs, for example, the University of Maryland.

  • 12:09:27

    NNAMDINick Buttrick, car ownership can impact people's wages by opening up their employment options, but in walkable areas that trend changes a bit. What did you find out about that?

  • 12:09:37

    BUTTRICKYeah. We found that car ownership is much less important in more walkable areas. So if you own a car the jobs that you can get to obviously in less walkable areas you get to a lot more, whereas in more walkable areas, you're much less likely to need one. So we find that the employment advantage for having a car, so how much more likely you are to be employed if you own a car is smaller in walkable areas. And the wage premium is also smaller. So people who own cars, they tend to earn more money on average, but that difference is weaker for people who live in more walkable areas, and the effect is actually fairly large.

  • 12:10:13

    BUTTRICKSo even for a moderately walkable area is composed to a moderately unwalkable area. You see a difference of about $5,000 a year on average. And we think that's even stronger for the most walkable versus the least walkable places.

  • 12:10:24

    NNAMDIBut to be clear, car ownership still buys you more in terms of wages even in walkable areas. Isn't that correct?

  • 12:10:31

    BUTTRICKWe believe that's correct for most walkable areas. At the very extremes that affect me go away. This is something that we're still working on. But in places like New York where the Metro system is very strong, where buses and subways get you many more places, we may even see a flip where car ownership becomes a negative.

  • 12:10:51

    NNAMDITracy, transportation demands or lack thereof are a big reason that you find that walkable areas can contribute to greater social equity. Why is that?

  • 12:11:01

    LOHSo transportation is the average American household's second biggest cost and what's particularly interesting about transportation as a burden on households is that when we think about housing, which is the number one cost that households have to pay, there is really no way to do without it. You can't just say, Oh, I'm spending too much on this. I've really got to cut this line item. So that's really a static cost that households aren't able to say that much on. With transportation it's really a different story, because if you're able to locate in a walkable urban place there is a transportation option that is totally free and it's called walking.

  • 12:11:39

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on walkability and upward mobility. We got a tweet from Anita, who says, Listened as I walked around Old Town running errands, excellent coverage. Old Town I guess being an excellent example of a walkable neighborhood, right?

  • 12:11:56


  • 12:11:57

    NNAMDIOkay. We're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about walkability and upward mobility. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about why more and more neighborhood groups in this region are trying to buy nothing and instead exchange or barter amongst themselves for the items they need. For this conversation we're having about walkability and upward mobility, Tracy Hadden Loh joins me in studio. She's a Fellow at the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at the Brookings Institution. Joining us by phone is Nick Buttrick, Doctoral Candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Virginia.

  • 12:13:18

    NNAMDINick, you are not just thinking about changes in household finances that result from walkable neighborhoods. You also draw a connection between walkability, a sense of social belonging and better economic outcomes. Can you walk us through that?

  • 12:13:33

    BUTTRICKYes. So we find that people who live in more walkable neighborhoods tend to report that they feel like they belong more to their communities. That they feel like their communities are sort of places that they feel comfortable in and that they're a part of and then to the extent that they do feel that. That they feel like their communities are sort of theirs, they report having done better than their parents in terms of their economic place on the sort of metaphorical ladder.

  • 12:13:57

    BUTTRICKSo that walkable places lead to the sense of community we think. And that sense of community helps to cushion people to give them sort of strength for dealing with the setbacks that come with trying to climb the economic ladder and it seems like it works. That people who feel this -- sort of have this greater sense of what people call social capital tend to be doing better than their parents at that same age.

  • 12:14:21

    NNAMDIWhat if I live in a walkable neighborhood, but I don't walk? That would be me. Will I still reap the benefits in terms of social cohesion?

  • 12:14:30

    BUTTRICKWe don't think so. So we think that the walking is actually very important that just simply being in a place isn't magic that the sort of thing that matters is getting out and meeting your neighbors, sort of getting involved in community activities and those are easier to do in walkable neighborhoods. So just having a lot of really good sidewalks won't help you climb the economic ladder, but having community we think really will.

  • 12:14:56

    NNAMDIBut I got connections. My wife is retired and walks in the neighborhood. She does our social cohesion. Tracy, theoretically, if you want your connections with your neighbors to help you get a better job, you'd want those neighbors to be in a good financial position themselves. So to a certain extent we're talking about socioeconomic integration. But historically the design and the development of a lot of neighborhoods in this region and across the country try to prevent that kind of integration. Is it fair to say that walkable neighborhoods are pushing back on that history?

  • 12:15:28

    LOHAbsolutely. So, you know, the characteristics that define a walkable neighborhood in terms of urban form, it's not just having sidewalks and having stores nearby, which is what Nick was talking about. It's also having a diversity of housing types, so not just having a detached single family houses that are to be occupied by owners, but to have multifamily rental housing and everything in between. So a diversity of housing types is what's going to produce economic diversity in terms of who's able to live in a neighborhood and that's what creating a truly walkable urban place is all about.

  • 12:16:07

    NNAMDIThere have been heated discussions about integration and neighborhoods as school systems in the suburbs look at redrawing boundaries. Do we know anything yet about how much having a good school within walking distance factors in to upward mobility?

  • 12:16:21

    LOHThat's a really great question. And I think that this is a tough one to answer. I think that jurisdictions are really struggling with this. Especially with the need to site new schools and where it's possible to find land for new school construction. I think that it's critical that children be able to attend high quality public elementary school within walking distance of their home. I think that putting a transportation burden especially on young children who aren't able to use transit by themselves is a barrier and that it's critical that young children have access to high quality public transportation, but high quality public education in their neighborhood.

  • 12:17:08

    NNAMDINick, here in D.C. it's easy to equate walkable neighborhoods with gentrification and displacement. Could that factor into you findings?

  • 12:17:17

    BUTTRICKWe believe it might. And this is something that we're actually looking to further. That it's possible that one of the reason why walkable neighborhoods seem like they have an effect on upward mobility is that people who are more likely to be upwardly mobile decided that's where they want to live that walkable neighborhoods are very appealing and so it may just be that people who are sort of the make are more likely to try and live in these neighborhoods, which will help them. So one of the things that we're looking into right now is -- seeing if we can sort of disambiguate that to figure out if there's a way to isolate the effect of an actual neighborhood.

  • 12:17:52

    BUTTRICKAnd there's a couple things that we're looking at. One is looking at what happens of when, these sort of light rail or other sorts of transportation systems expand to the people who are already living in those places. You know, does it all of a sudden help them to climb the ladder now that they have these transportation options where they previously didn't. We're also looking to see if what happens if someone is sort of randomly assigned to live in one of these neighborhoods.

  • 12:18:17

    BUTTRICKIf they're sort of settled there, does being put in a walkable neighborhood sort of help you climb up? And we think it does. We think that it's much more likely that the walkability of a neighborhood sort of helps provide people the resources to climb. But it is something that our current research can't really tell us quite yet, which direction the causality goes.

  • 12:18:38

    NNAMDITracy, even if there are things we don't know about the specific effects walkable neighborhoods can have on people's lives, it seems pretty safe to say that they're a net positive. But you have told us that truly walkable places are very scarce. Why is that? What's holding back?

  • 12:18:53

    LOHWell, I mean, I should first say that while walkable urban places are having a moment right now and are truly in demand, right, which we're seeing with gentrification and displacement pressure, that hasn't always been the case. You know, for those of us who were around D.C. in the '80s, for example, we can remember a time when the dominant trend in real estate was actually suburbanization, and when both consumers were looking for a different kind of product, and builders were interested in selling a different kind of product. So we know that it hasn't always been a timeless dominant market demand for walkable urban places. But they are hot right now and that is putting a lot of price pressure on scarce inventory.

  • 12:19:43

    LOHSo understanding that one of the reason why this inventory is scarce is because we haven't been building in walkable urban places for the last 20 years. That does raise the question of why aren't we doing even more now? And part of that is because there is a serious lack of the kind of transportation infrastructure and the kind of land availability that would make it possible to really scale up creating new walkable urban places.

  • 12:20:10

    NNAMDIYou mentioned Silver Spring. I mentioned downtown Bethesda. What kinds of policy changes would be required to make more walkable neighborhoods here in the D.C. region? What kind of policy changes will require to make those neighborhoods the way they are?

  • 12:20:27

    LOHGreat question. Well, we've seen a lot of what Montgomery County has done really work in downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring. So Montgomery County comprehensively reformed their zoning code to create new mixed use zoning categories to support commercial and residential real estate development happening on the same parcel. In addition, Montgomery County has also made major investments in transit beyond just thinking about, you know, what they have in terms of the Metro and in terms of trying to encourage transit oriented development around the Metro. They've also made huge investments in bus.

  • 12:21:06

    LOHThere's the potential to do a lot more if the county really wants to scale up on creating walkable urban places, but this combination of reforming how land and land is changed are controlled and making transportation infrastructure investments in biking and walking and transit are the secret sauce. That’s what it takes. And Montgomery County has been successful at creating new walkable urban places that were once drivable suburban.

  • 12:21:35

    NNAMDINick, is that something that your report looked at at all, policy?

  • 12:21:40

    BUTTRICKI think we don't really have the capability yet to really track these things over time. It's definitely something that we're very interested in. You know, as zoning changes, as sort of construction changes as landscapes change, you know, what happens to people who are living there and who move there. And it's something that we're sort of very much starting to focus on, because we think that these are in the abstract very good things and we'd like to be able to prove it.

  • 12:22:03

    NNAMDITracy, when did the nation's conversation change? There was a time when the ideal of living in the United States was to find a good suburban or ex-urban location in which to live, in which to raise your kids. Over the course of the past decade or more, we have seen a number of officials and I'm thinking of political campaigns in this city in which people who were running campaign on the whole notion of creating a more livable and by which in very many cases they've meant more walkable city. What was the nature of that cultural change?

  • 12:22:35

    LOHThat's a great question. So that's a transition that we've seen happening over the last two real estate cycles. So our current real estate cycle 2010 to the present and then thinking back one real estate cycle before that, so looking before the recession up until around the year 2000. So in those two real estate cycles that's when we really saw this pivot where there was more demand for walkable urban places. You know, I think that we have to look at how the U.S. economy itself has experienced a structural transition during that time and how -- which types of employers and which types of employment are growing has changed.

  • 12:23:18

    LOHAs we look at the decline of manufacturing and the growth of the knowledge economy, it makes sense that enterprises in the knowledge economy want to locate in walkable urban places where they can have easy access to a highly educated workforce, and where they can exchange ideas, which is the currency of their work.

  • 12:23:39

    NNAMDINick, did your report look at how micro mobility, bikes that is or scooters, factor into walkability? Was that part of your study?

  • 12:23:47

    BUTTRICKIt was not. Our data comes from sort of before the rise of the birds. We do think that bikes are important. And a lot of the work that we've done seems to be lumping in bikes with other sorts of public transit. So are walkability measures take into account things like bike lanes and they weight them less strongly than something like, you know, good buses or good subways. But clearly if it helps you get around a city without a car that will help.

  • 12:24:18

    BUTTRICKAnd one of the places that we think is actually really interesting to look at this is a place -- places in Europe such as, you know, Copenhagen where the entire city more or less bikes from place to place. And it allows people to get pretty much anywhere in the city, you know, assuming it's not, you know, raining super hard or anything like that, with fairly -- with a lot of ease. And we think that systems like that, which makes it easy for people to move around without a car regardless of what that system is should help.

  • 12:24:49

    NNAMDII'm thinking Amsterdam too. Tracy, is that a factor? Scooters, bicycles, electric bicycles, all the other means of transportation that we're using outside of car, do they contribute to the walkability factor?

  • 12:25:04

    LOHI think we are only just now starting to see the beginning of the contribution that these new forms of mobility, although, of course, the bicycle is not new, can make. You know, as we think about the fact that, you know, it's great that walking is free and almost everyone can do it. The fact of the matter is the distances that are feasible to walk are limited, and then also, you know, walking isn't easy for absolutely everybody. And so some of these new forms of mobility can make it possible to go greater distance and for folks of diverse ages and abilities to travel without a car, which is fantastic. And I think it's particularly interesting to think about the potential of these new forms of mobility to retrofit the suburbs without actually having to physically retrofit the suburbs, right.

  • 12:25:59

    LOHLike if we think about Montgomery County, Rockville Pike is not going anywhere. It's going to be big and it's going to be scary to be walking around on Rockville Pike for a long long time. But these new forms of mobility are potentially a different way for folks to interact with Rockville Pike and to really open up our imaginations about how some of these suburban arterials like Route 1 in Arlington and Alexandria or Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, about how we can change the way that we use those rights of way.

  • 12:26:31

    NNAMDIWhat should policymakers in this region take away from this emerging connection between walkable places and social mobility?

  • 12:26:39

    LOHWe have had this conversation in D.C. about livability and quality of life and how, you know, walkability --

  • 12:26:47

    NNAMDII remember when Tommy Wells was running At-Large in the District of Columbia. That was his campaign theme, livability, walkability.

  • 12:26:53

    LOHAnd it's great. It's great to understand walkability as part of having a high quality of life. But we're now understanding that walkability is not just a nice to have amenity thing that this is actually a part of creating a just and inclusive and equitable society. That when we make it safe and convenient for people of all ages and abilities to walk we are making it possible for those folks to in the words of Nick's study, "lift themselves up" through social mobility.

  • 12:27:26

    NNAMDIYou mentioned I think tech businesses. To what extent is walkability being driven by businesses versus as opposed to a mandated legislative policy?

  • 12:27:39

    LOHThat's a great question. So what I look at in my own research is I primarily focus on commercial real estate. Okay, so I am looking at the consumption of office space, you know, which is what we might think of white collar tech workers using. But also looking at retail, the stores that all of us, you know, go to and use every day. And in the walkable urban context what we see is that that type of infrastructure is really great for commercial enterprises, because the foot traffic that is attracted by one business, well, those are potential customers for the business next door. Whereas in the drivable suburban context the traffic that is generated by one business is a threat to the business next door.

  • 12:28:27

    LOHSo in the walkable urban context we see that commercial activity, more is more, and it's a win win situation. Whereas in the drivable suburban context more is less and the next chunk of sprawl is just hurting all the sprawl around it.

  • 12:28:45

    NNAMDISo let's talk more specifically for a second. How is Amazon likely to affect walkability in a place like Crystal City in Arlington County?

  • 12:28:54

    LOHWell, that's a great question. So if we're looking at a huge new employer locating into an area that currently has, you know, a high office vacancy rate, you know, we can expect that it's possible that other employers might want to locate nearby either, because they are doing business with Amazon or because they want to enjoy the benefits of some of the investments that are being made in, for example, redoing Route 1, and to make the Crystal City Pentagon City corridor more livable. So that's something that may really open up that area not just to Amazon, but to other enterprises as well.

  • 12:29:39

    NNAMDII thought I would bring that up because today is the anniversary of the HQ2 location announcement that was made a year ago. Nick, what is next for your research about walkability?

  • 12:29:49

    BUTTRICKI think the next big questions we have is trying to figure out how much of the effect is based on people choosing to move to these neighborhoods versus the effect that these neighborhoods have on the people who already live there. And so we're looking into things like, you know, what happens 30 years later once transit is built in a place or if you're somebody, who, you know, is say a refugee and you get placed in one neighborhood versus another, sort of how does that neighborhood and the structure of the neighborhood help you to integrate and to sort of move up the socioeconomic ladder. So really sort of thinking deeply about what is about walkability specifically that creates these effects and does it create it equally for all people or if the sort of benefits are focused on one or two specific sorts of groups.

  • 12:30:37

    NNAMDINick Buttrick is a Doctoral Candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. Nick Buttrick, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:30:44

    BUTTRICKThank you for having me.

  • 12:30:45

    NNAMDITracy Hadden Loh is a Fellow at the Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at the Brookings Institution. Tracy, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:30:53

    LOHAlways a pleasure, Kojo.

  • 12:30:55

    NNAMDICan I say congratulations?

  • 12:30:56

    LOHYes. Thank you.

  • 12:30:57

    NNAMDITracy is a new mother again. Thank you. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we will have a conversation about why more and more neighborhoods groups in this region are trying to buy nothing and instead exchange or barter amongst themselves for the items they need. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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