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The Link Between Walkable Neighborhoods and Race

African Americans are far more likely to live in the San Francisco Bay Area’s least walkable neighborhoods. Why?

Flickr/Kai Schreiber

Walkability is not only good for you: It’s a highly desired characteristic of housing and neighborhoods. I’ve written before about the connection between walkable neighborhoods and higher housing values, reduced rates of violent crime, obesity, premature death and long-term memory loss, as well as higher levels of creativity and civic engagement. But a recent study from California Polytechnic State University’s William Riggs reminds us that not all urbanites have the same kind of access to walkable streets and neighborhoods. The study, which focuses on the San Francisco Bay Area, finds a considerable racial divide when it comes to access to walkability, with black residents much less likely to live in the area’s walkable neighborhoods.

The study looked at the connection between race and walkability through two lenses. The first, quantitative lens combines data from WalkScore with U.S. Census data and a 2000 San Francisco Bay Area Transit Survey (BATS) of more than 15,000 Bay Area residents. In the map below, taken from the report, green dots represent walkable neighborhoods, yellow dots represent semi-walkable neighborhoods, and red dots represent the least walkable neighborhoods. As would be expected, the most walkable neighborhoods are concentrated near the center of San Francisco, in San Mateo, and in parts of Berkeley.

(Riggs)

But the real upshot of the study comes though in the map below, which overlays race and walkability. The neighborhoods with the highest shares of black populations are in red, while those with the least are in blue. Most of the populations with high shares of black residents have few, if any, green dots to represent walkability. The blue areas, those with the fewest black residents, have by contrast the most green dots, meaning that the neighborhoods with low shares of African Americans are also are some of the most walkable in the Bay Area.

(Riggs)

One might assume this phenomenon is due to either lack of affordability in walkable areas, or because of rampant discrimination in the real estate industry. Those certainly play a role. But interestingly enough, the study finds that areas with high levels of walkability and a high concentration of black residents, and areas with high levels of walkability but a low concentration of black residents, have similar housing values—$421,484 for the former, and $412,025 for the latter.

The connection between race and walkability holds even when controlling for all other factors such as housing attributes, proximity to transit and access to a car.

So why is this happening? To get at this, the researchers conducted interviews and held focus groups with roughly 75 Bay Area residents in both walkable and un-walkable neighborhoods. Interview participants were mostly minorities—blacks, Latinos, and Asians. The researchers asked a simple question: Why would you move to a less walkable neighborhood?

Price, of course, was a common response. One black participant, who remained in his walkable San Francisco neighborhood even as family and friends moved away and predominately Asian immigrants moved it, noted that his house, which had once been worth just $30,000 to $50,000, had increased in value more than 20 times, and was now worth between $600,000 and $800,000. Many acknowledged “cashing out” of walkable neighborhoods in favor of less pricey neighborhoods with fewer walkable amenities.

The study also found social relationships play a key role in the connection between minorities and their neighborhoods. As the chart below from the study shows, cultural and social factors are incredibly important in determining housing decisions. “Many individuals spent more time talking about social places like barbershops and manicure salons than they did about price,” Riggs notes, “even if they mentioned price first and if these locations were located 20 miles away in the central city.”

(Riggs)

Respondents seldom mentioned walkability when asked about their housing decisions. Instead, they cited factors like high prices, or crime rates, or proximity to friends and family as key in their decisions to move away from more walkable neighborhoods to less walkable ones. As Riggs writes, “minorities concentrated in less walkable areas would talk not about being able to walk to the store but about having more square footage, space for a second car or a yard to garden—pull factors that were influencing their choices.”

Still, the evidence remains: As with some many other aspects of urban life, walkability reflects ongoing racial divides in our cities.

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