Is 'Walking Distance' Overrated?

The common wisdom about walkable neighborhoods holds that density – proximity to destinations – determines the number of walking trips. An ideal walking distance of a quarter mile is usually prescribed between residences and the nearest transit stop or retail center.

I don't dispute that walking distance is important, especially when I'm lugging an armload of groceries. However, some trendy high-density development favors compactness at the expense of comfort and safety.

An award-winning transportation research paper found that pedestrians typically walked farther than they thought to reach a transit stop: a half mile instead of a quarter mile. It also cited an absence of barriers as a major factor in the decision to walk. In my opinion, such barriers, both physical and perceived, are a stronger deterrent for pedestrians than distance. They include dangerous intersections, isolated or unsafe areas, high traffic density, parking lots, narrow sidewalks and poor lighting. If a route is pleasant and obstacle-free, pedestrians may well underestimate the time and distance of their trips.

Several new housing developments in my city are built literally within a few hundred yards of a shopping mall. But all of these dense, "mixed-use" housing-and-shopping pairs are bisected by major roads, requiring residents to cross multiple lanes of traffic in order to access shopping. (Worse, there are no grocery stores to be found, just warehouse retail. Would you walk to Costco?)


Most people are willing and able to walk more than a quarter mile; people who prefer walking would like to have the space to move. Time and distance are certainly an issue for hurried commuters, for the elderly or disabled, and during extreme weather. Still, a commute on foot can be a good replacement for a daily workout, especially when so many commuters today are sitting in their cars for hours, stuck in traffic. I have comfortably walked a few dozen blocks in New York City, but I would rather drive across the street in the neighborhood pictured above. If good urban planning is supposed to promote an active lifestyle, I wouldn't call walking 100 yards across a smoggy intersection active or healthy.


Diana DeRubertis is an environmental writer focusing on the urban planning field.



Michael Lewyn's picture

well put

And to put it more concisely: density, diversity [of land uses] and design are necessary for the ideal walkable community. The place that DeRubertis is writing about has density and diversity- but not good design.

Makes an Important Point

The perception of the pedestrian is critical, as the article states. Visibility certainly plays a part - people will walk through long stretches of parking lots to get to the mall because they can see their destination.


Well spoken. Unfortunately you have to make things really easy for people to have them walk, or simply not use vehicles for every single thing. Making people choose to walk is the responsibility of the developer now, officially.

Torbjorn @

very true

This is a very important point. Distance IS highly over-emphasized and unfortunately it is becoming codified, much to our detriment because many jurisdictions are using a number of 1/4 or 1/2 mile or 1k without any local knowledge or evidence to rationally support it. Some places are applying regulations using a straight-line buffer that completely ignores actual walking routes and real ridership capture...
I live and work in Florida and despite having beautiful weather 1/2 the year, it is near impossible to convince people to walk or bike (though slightly less impossible with current gas prices...). It is quite dangerous to walk or bike here and there are often barriers like canals, fenced off subdivisions and 8 lane arterials with double turn lanes.
It is a good practice to create dedicated walking and biking paths separate from traffic where possible and to minimize the size of our roadways. I would much rather cross 2 4-lane minor arterials with single turn lanes than to try and cross one of these 8 or 10 lane mega roads where you get stuck in between all the various turning movements and there is no time for a quick pedestrian, let alone an elderly or disabled person, to cross. I also favor splitting mega roads into one-ways because it's easier to read the traffic from a ped/bike standpoint and it is easier to time the signals for efficient flow and ciirculation. In Curitiba, Brazil they put ped and transit on a central street flanked by retail and had parallel one-ways on each side of this to access rear parking and office uses and then another block off is dense housing. That was a very pleasant pedestrian environment especially since the walkable streets linked beautiful public plazas full of activity and engaging street life!

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Book cover of the Guide to Graduate Planning Programs 4th Edition

Thinking about Grad School?

The Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs is the only comprehensive ranking and listing of graduate urban planning programs available.
Starting at $24.95
Book cover of Insider's Guide to Careers in Urban Planning

So you want to be a planner...

Check out our behind the scenes look at 25 careers in the Urban Planning field
Starting at $14.95