The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Walkable neighborhoods provide health, environmental and financial benefits

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Home buyers increasingly are asking real estate agents to show them homes in walkable communities. Over the last few years, walkable communities have jumped to the top of many home buyers’ search criteria because they want to live in areas with easy access to public transportation, schools, stores and entertainment.

But while buyer demand for walkability is on the rise, the Washington region does not have enough neighborhoods — yet — to meet this demand. The good news is that with all the development and growth going on, there are more and more places that fit the walkability criteria.

A neighborhood’s walkability is the degree to which it has safe, designated areas for people to walk or bike to work, dining, shopping and entertainment venues. Walkable communities are often touted as being easier to get around and fostering a greater sense of community. A one-mile walk through a compact, walkable neighborhood takes residents past numerous businesses and shops. Comparatively, residents in sprawling, suburban neighborhoods would pass very few shops on a one-mile walk.

As more walkable neighborhoods are developed, there will be opportunities to realize additional benefits for the environment, individuals’ health, economic development and real estate property values.

Improving our environment
According to a 2013 report from the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment, transportation accounts for 23 percent of Washington’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Cars and trucks in the region regularly sit in gridlocked traffic, exacerbating the pollution caused by vehicles.

More Charron: Lack of inventory doesn’t tell full story of Washington’s real estate market

Walkable communities encourage fewer car trips, which minimizes air and noise pollution, since residents can feasibly walk to everything they need on a day-to-day basis. And with fewer cars on the road, communities can use portions of the roadway to build more green space, which serves as stormwater management and wildlife habitat.

Advancing your health
Higher walkability in neighborhoods is associated with decreased rates of obesity and diabetes. Today, most people sit for far too many hours — in the car on the way to work, at their desk during the workday, back in the car on the way home, and when they drop kids off at soccer practice or go out to dinner.

Walkable communities provide the opportunity to incorporate more activity into everyday life, by walking to and from work, taking a stroll to a local restaurant for dinner or running errands on foot. With obesity rates on the rise nationwide, the simple act of walking is one the easiest and most affordable ways for people to increase physical activity.

Walkable neighborhoods also give residents and businesspeople greater opportunities to mingle while they work, shop and dine, enhancing their sense of community. In addition to traditional health benefits, increased social interaction can improve individuals’ health and happiness.

Boosting economic development
Walkable communities support the local business environment and increase its appeal to tourists. When shops are clustered together, foot traffic visitors are encouraged to visit multiple neighboring stores and spend money. In this sense, success breeds success. When local entrepreneurs see small shops doing well, they are often inspired to open their own.

More Charron: Where demand for homes is growing in the Washington suburbs

Improved walkability can also decrease expenses associated with owning a car. Individuals who walk to work instead of drive may save on gas and decrease how often they must take their car in for maintenance associated with severe daily driving. For residents of these walkable communities, it’s likely these savings translate into more disposable income, which may go toward local businesses.

Raising real estate property values
Since walkable communities tend to be more desirable to individuals and businesses, they are often associated with higher property values. Walk Score, a service that measures the walkability of addresses across the country, has shown that for each point a home has toward walkability, its value typically increases by $500 to $3,000.

The growth of walkable communities is predicted to continue as more millennials move into the real estate market since the benefits of these communities are especially attractive to younger generations.

As walkable communities continue to drive the real estate market, home buyers will reap benefits of a healthier environment, economy and self.

David Charron, chief strategy officer of Rockville-based multiple-listing service Bright MLS, writes an occasional column about the Washington-area real estate market.