Why don't conservative cities walk?: connecting politics to mobility

Is the correlation between walkability and liberal politics meaningful? Bill Oremus finds out.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

"Why don't conservative cities walk?" This bold question from Slate writer Bill Oremus is rocketing through our virtual waves.

Oremus studied the "walk scores" of cities across America, using Tom Vanderbilt’s recent series on the crisis of walking in the United States.

The cities that ranked the highest? All liberal. New York, San Francisco, and Boston are in fact the most liberal cities in the country. The lowest ranking major cities? Well, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, and Fort Worth both voted McCain. And according to Oremus, all the lowest scoring cities lean conservative, while the top 19 voted for Obama in 2008.

Is the correlation meaningful? "Don’t conservatives like to walk?" Oremus asks.

His first impulse was to look at size. And while big cities are both liberal tilting and more walkable, this doesn't fully explain the finding:

Houston, Phoenix, and Dallas are among the nation’s ten largest cities, but they’re also among the country’s more conservative big cities, and none cracks the top 20 in walkability. All three trail smaller liberal cities such as Portland, Denver, and Long Beach. And if you expand the data beyond the 50 largest cities, the conservative/liberal polarity only grows. Small liberal cities such as Cambridge, Mass., Berkeley, Ca., and Paterson, N.J. make the top 10, while conservative cities of similar size such as Palm Bay, Fl. and Clarksville, Ten. rank at the bottom.

So Oremus substitutes size for density. If a city is plagued by sprawl - like Houston, Pheonix, and Dallas - walkability is low despite their size. The downtown cores of New York, San Francisco, and Boston were built in the pre-car era. They are old cities with outer limits hitting up against the smaller towns and cities surrounding them.

But what is the correlation between density and politics? Are liberals moving to dense and walkable cities? Or do liberals build cities to be more walkable - like Portlanders supporting public transit that limits sprawl.

Oremus suggests that for the most part, the factors making a city walkable are the same as those making it liberal. Basically, these cities are older and on the coast - thus hubs for international commerce and immigration. Diversity leads to tolerance.

Unwalkable cities are mostly scattered across the south. These cities were historically dominated by agriculture. "Whereas industry breeds density, immigration, and social mobility, agriculture requires vast plots of land and leads to an entrenched social order dominated by the large landowners," Oremus argues.

If we take a step back and look at global walkability, the United States as a whole scores dismally. The average Australian takes 9,695 steps per day. The average Japanese takes 7,168 and the average Swiss takes 9,650. The average American? Only 5,117 steps.

"Why do we walk so comparatively little?" asks Vanderbilt, who published the original series, "The first answer is one that applies virtually everywhere in the modern world: As with many forms of physical activity, walking has been engineered out of existence."

Images: Creative Commons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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