Are liberals doing more walking than conservatives? If a recent story on ‘The Crisis in American Walking‘ from The Slate is accurate, potentially yes.
But before we get all political and step on toes, maybe it’s not conservatives’ fault. Perhaps the fault lies on the cities in which they live.
Tom Vanderbilt, author of the above mentioned article, investigated why more Americans aren’t walking, why other countries are walking more, and how the decline in walking is affecting our health.
It all began at a highway safety conference in Savannah, Georgia. After attending a class on pedestrian safety, Vanderbilt spiraled into all-out investigation mode on the topic of pedestrians in America, and how the pedestrian has become some odd being traveling on foot instead of by car, horse or plane.
When crossing the street after the class, Vanderbilt noted looking up and seeing a “Stop for Pedestrians” sign and, finding the whole thing odd, thought, “Why not just write: ‘Stop for People?'” What has walking in America become? A hazard? A rarity?
The experience got him thinking, and he began researching the topic, which resulted in a four-part series on the topic of walking in America and why it’s become a problem and point of fixation for many. It seems people either do it or they don’t. And it shows in the way their cities are designed and laid out.
According to Vanderbilt, walking in America has become “an act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed,” he says, “the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk.” He then cites the very existence of movements like “Everybody Walk!” and “The Campaign to Get America Walking” as proof. And we must admit, it’s a pretty convincing argument.
Of the many startling statistics Vanderbilt shared in his story, the most concerning was that the United States walks the least of any industrialized nation. And when compared to the average British citizen who walks between 12,000 and 16,000 steps a day, Americans manage a mere 5,100 steps. What gives?
Vanderbilt suggested that the blame may not all be on the pedestrian, or ‘persons’, as he would prefer. Some U.S. cities just don’t lend themselves to frequent and safe walking due to their very infrastructure. And the cities that are more walking friendly, are few and far between. But perhaps the most interesting thing about these ‘walkable’ cities? They all just happen to be liberal. So is it the conservatives bringing down our step count?
Slate writer Will Oremus followed up on Vanderbilt’s series and wrote a story of his own titled ‘Why Don’t Conservative Cities Walk?‘ in which he analyzed some of the most interesting points from Vanderbilt’s findings, including one that gets very political.
What Oremus found was that most of the cities that had been deemed ‘walkable’ (by walkscore.com) were liberal. And the cities that tended to be more conservative fell to the bottom of the ‘walkability’ pack.
“In fact, the top 19 [cities] are all in states that voted for Obama in 2008,” he said. “The lowest-scoring major cities, by comparison, tilt conservative,” including Jacksonville, Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, which all voted for McCain.
“What explains the correlation?” Oremus asked. “Don’t conservatives like to walk?”
As much as it’d be fun to believe these odd findings are exactly what they appear to be, the issue isn’t so black and white. One of Oremus’s considerations was size, since big cities tend to lean liberal. But big cities like Houston, Pheonix and Dallas are typically conservative, which throws that theory out the window.
And while another potential factor – density – seemed more plausible since walkable cities like New York and Boston are tightly packed, similarly-dense cities like Oklahoma City and Jacksonville aren’t walkable in the slightest.
In trying to get to the bottom of the walkability phenomenon, Oremus formed his own potential list of reasons, narrowing them to four main points.
- Liberals build denser, more walkable cities (like Portlanders, who support public transit and policies that limit sprawl).
- Liberals are drawn to cities that are already dense and walkable (e.g., college graduates migrating to Seattle rather than San Antonio, which has a lower walking score).
- Walkable cities make people more liberal (more confined spaces force people to get along with diverse neighbors and rely more on public transit).
- The same factors that make cities dense and walkable also make them liberal.
Oremus speculated that the last explanation is the most likely, but that a combination of all four are probably at work depending on the area. Further determining factors included the age of a city (older cities built in pre-car eras are more dense and thus, more walkable) if it was a port city (which are more diverse and typically more liberal), and if it lied on the coast (as coastal cities typically breed an atmosphere of diversity and tolerance).
The age factor also helps explain another twist in the story: Why big cities that are starting to lean more liberal remain fairly un-walkable, such as Houston. Oremus points out that a city built around an infrastructure for cars in its more ‘conservative’ days, is almost permanently fashioned that way, making it difficult to restructure for walkability no matter how liberal it may become. Which is why, Oremus says, “It may be easier for a city to turn liberal than for a city to turn more walkable.”