Walking Places Is Part of the Culture Wars Now

For two million years, we have walked this Earth to get what we need. Now, 60 percent of Americans want to drive everywhere.
August 30, 2021, 1:00pm
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Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

Approximately two million years after our ancestors first learned to move about the planet with an upright gait, whether or not walking places is good or bad has become yet another dividing line in the American culture wars. 

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll that studied the issue of whether people prefer to live in places where "schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance" versus where they are "several miles away," the biggest divide in opinion is not young versus old, urban versus rural, or education level. It is political preference. 

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Just 22 percent of Conservatives want to live in walkable neighborhoods, while 77 percent prefer driving everywhere. A slightly higher percentage of Republicans or people who lean Republican as a whole, 26 percent, want walkable neighborhoods. Meanwhile, 44 percent of moderate Democrats and 57 percent of liberals want walkable neighborhoods, resulting in a 50/50 split among Democrats as a whole. 

That gap of 35 percent between Liberals who want to live in walkable neighborhoods and Conservatives who do is larger than the gap between those with postgraduate degrees and high school diplomas or less who want walkable neighborhoods (14 percent) or 18-29 year olds versus 50-64 year olds (12 percent). The poll also shows a 26-point gap between Asians who want walkable neighborhoods (58 percent) versus whites (36 percent), although the poll was only conducted in English.

Pew Study

But one of the most striking findings is that the gap in walkable neighborhood preference according to extreme political views is even wider than the gap between urban and rural respondents, where 50 percent of urban residents polled want walkable neighborhoods and 25 percent of rural ones do. In other words, whether or not you actually live in an urban or rural area is less of a predictor of whether you want walkable neighborhoods than the political beliefs one holds regardless of where they live.

But, there is still a lot of disagreement on the issue, even among people who consider themselves part of the same ideological cohort. 

If we put the above a slightly different way, 42 percent of liberals prefer to live in places where they have to drive everywhere. That is a very high number for the group in the survey one would think is most concerned about climate change, of which driving is a huge contributor. And while electric cars may help reduce emissions from cars significantly in the long run, they need to be accompanied by an equally significant reduction in how often and how far we drive. The most obvious and attainable solution is to live in places where we can sometimes walk to the places we need to go.

It is wrong to equate the above with the idea that everyone has to live in cities. Rural towns have and continue to thrive with houses and businesses clustered around a main street or town center built around a transportation hub to a major city. This is how much of the country looked, especially but not only in the northeast and midwest, prior to World War II. And it is how much of, say, Europe and East Asia still look. In fact, the U.S. is one of the few places where massive, suburban sprawl with mandatory single-family zoning that legally bans businesses from opening near people is the rule, norm, and general expectation. It is, also, ironically, one of the most dramatic examples in modern U.S. history of government mandates interfering with the rights of private property holders, which the Conservative movement was once ideologically opposed to.

There are all kinds of other implications from these poll results. Cars are expensive to buy and maintain, and living patterns that continue to rely on them are yet another financial burden on people who may not be able to afford them. And because building homes is expensive, there is a general housing shortage in this country, and real estate is often more of an investment than a place to live, real estate companies tend to build the largest homes they can to sell at the highest price, which means houses keep getting bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, large, detached homes use more energy than smaller or attached ones.

If the climate crisis concerns you, this is all bad news. In the two million years since our ancestors learned to walk, we have evolved to understand and manipulate our planet in ways our predecessors quite literally could not even conceive of. And yet, in some very important ways, we are going backwards.