We Walk, Therefore We Are Liberals?

boston skylineBoston: Liberal and third-most walkable? (Photo via iStockphoto.)

Boston is the third most walkable city in the nation. This makes sense. It’s dense, has kick-ass public transportation and costs as much as buying a used car every single year to park the damn thing. It is not, however, because Bostonians are a pack of raging liberals.

Recently, Will Oremus over at Slate opined that the reason Boston, as well as nearly all of the country’s major cities with the highest “walk scores,” are ranked so high is because they are the nesting grounds for the progressive haute monde — places such as New York, San Fran, and D.C. Conversely, he argues, conservative outposts such as Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Houston are piss-poor places for walking. Why? Because they are full of conservatives and conservatives don’t like to walk.

While it is certainly flattering to think that liberals’ high-minded, intellectual convictions compel them to hoof around town, I say bullshit. If you break down a few statistics and throw in a dose of raw reality, it makes perfect sense why the best walking cities sit atop the list.

“Look at the walkability map and you’ll see that unwalkable cities are concentrated in the south,” Oremus writes. The writer argues that a history of an agricultural economy bred less density and thus makes for less walkable cities. This may be true, and city density is a key determining factor in what makes for a good place to walk, but the writer is missing a crucial factor: It’s painfully hot in those Southern cities that he mentions.

I resided in Houston for many years. It was like living in a dog’s mouth. Even during the so-called “mild” winters, the best you could hope for was to make it from your air-conditioned home into your air-conditioned SUV without breaking into a sweaty lather. The smart ones kept a fresh shirt on hand at all times, and even the dumb ones knew that while you could always pack on extra layers if it was cold, constant nudity to stay cool is not a welcome lifestyle choice. And during the summer, when the humidity levels equaled the scorching temp, forget about it. No one walked anywhere. Why would you? How could you? Jogging wasn’t a dirty word; it was a stupid word. And the same could be said for most of the cities that rank lowest on the walkability list.

So why are places like Boston, New York, and San Francisco top spots to stroll instead of roll? I believe it’s a simple mix of density, public transportation, and prohibitively high parking costs. Those three cities, along with nearly every one of the top 10 most walkable cities, appear on at least one of the lists for highest density, best public transportation, and pricey parking. New York, Boston, and San Francisco, not surprisingly, make it on all three lists. It only makes sense that if parking is super expensive or it takes longer circling the neighborhood looking for a parking spot than it does to run down the street to the T or to work, there is no point in driving. Even if it’s bone-numbing cold outside, a good public transportation system can still be less of a pain in the ass than driving or digging your car out from under 4-feet of snow only to abandon that precious spot five blocks away from your home.

During these early days of the Great Presidential Horserace, the writer at Slate should be applauded for trying to spin political gold out of horseshit – hell, he got me and a ton of other folks to read his piece and react – but we walk because in places such as Boston, it is often a lot easier than driving, not because we bleed Blue, not Red.

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  • Charlie

    You are correct that all of these other factors are key to walkability. However, they are all also affected by politics. Zoning, transit, and parking policies are all controlled by the local governments. If their policies are primarily car-oriented, you end up with single use zoning with lots of free parking and poorly funded transit systems. This in turn leads to very unwalkable communities.

  • JD

    Let’s not mix up correlation and causality. Oremus pointed out the correlation between walkable cities and left-leaning politics and pondered four possible causes.

  • Mark Swanson

    Take it easy Chris, no need to get so worked up. The Red Sox will be out of the cellar before too long. Walking is nonpolitical, but just maybe more progressive cities believe in planning ahead instead of letting cities grow haphazardly. And if you plan ahead you might be able to create some places worth walking to. I was in Houston once, and there was nothing at all there worth getting out of the car, summer or winter.

  • jeebs

    @ Charlie, JD, Mark
    Exactly.