Does walkability boost economic mobility?

Intergenerational upward economic mobility—the opportunity for children from poorer households to pull themselves up the economic ladder in adulthood—is a hallmark of a just society. In the United States, there are large regional differences in upward social mobility. The present research examined why it is easier to get ahead in some cities and harder in others. We identified the “walkability” of a city, how easy it is to get things done without a car, as a key factor in determining the upward social mobility of its residents. We 1st identified the relationship between walkability and upward mobility using tax data from approximately 10 million Americans born between 1980 and 1982. We found that this relationship is linked to both economic and psychological factors. Using data from the American Community Survey from over 3.66 million Americans, we showed that residents of walkable cities are less reliant on car ownership for employment and wages, significantly reducing 1 barrier to upward mobility. Additionally, in 2 studies, including 1 preregistered study (1,827 Americans; 1,466 Koreans), we found that people living in more walkable neighborhoods felt a greater sense of belonging to their communities, which is associated with actual changes in individual social class.

Here is the paper by Oishi, S., Koo, M., & Buttrick, N. R., via Anecdotal.


People will only pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they think their feet are useful in the first place.

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As soon as they think that their mobility is moving them upward they're more than likely to buy a car.

Unlikely in places like NY, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where driving and owning a car is a hassle.

The main reason that driving and owning a car is such a hassle in those cities is that there are so many people in them that own and drive cars.

They are commuters. Not locals.

Cities like Chicago, for instance, encompass far more area than the Loop itself. Much of the space surrounding it is residential and many of those residents own cars. That's why there's permitted parking that gives residents priority over visitors.

Looks interesting, at the moment I can't see the full paper; Tyler's link wasn't helpful, this looks like a direct link to the paper:

I'm guessing that walkability is only a moderate rather than powerful predictor of social mobility, but I can only read the abstract at the moment.

The abstract doesn't describe how they measure walkability. Based on the neighborhoods that I've lived in, I like the stats from although apparently urban planners have made a number of critiques.

There's a huge variety in what people might want or get from walking -- maybe this explains why Tyler to the puzzlement of those of us who know Los Angeles first-hand, keeps praising LA as a highly walkable city? He may be putting heavy emphasis on walkability elements that the rest of us discount.

And this article presumably uses yet another set of weights, ones that emphasize economic and job mobility.

P.S. Speaking of localized effects: while poking around trying to find the paper, I came across this article about how Cormac McCarthy helped a couple of scientists to write better papers. It was just a few days ago that MR noted how McCarthy had helped W. Brian Arthur write his famous article in the HBR about increasing returns. It turns out that he's been helping other researchers with their writing too.

So, to increase your economic mobility, pay attention to walkability. To increase your readability, move to New Mexico and hang out with Cormac McCarthy.

However I disagree with some of McCarthy’s advice, as listed in that article:

“Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts and send your eyes darting back and forth while your hands are turning pages or clicking on links.
And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.
Don’t say the same thing in three different ways in any single section. Don’t say both ‘elucidate’ and ‘elaborate’. Just choose one, or you risk that your readers will give up.”

I dislike reading articles that lack footnotes. I don’t even like endnotes, they force me to flip back and forth from the article to the notes. Footnotes make reading easier – and that may be the difference between the audience that McCarthy is writing for (and the type of reader he is), compared to academic writers and readers. I want those footnotes d*mmit, sometimes they’re the most useful part of the paper!

Much as social media cause us to see our own lives as less interesting as the lives of our friends on social media, I wonder if the average article is of lower quality than the average article that is cites? E.g. any article that cites say Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost” is almost guaranteed to be of lower quality.

And that middle piece of advice, about avoiding repetition, goes against what I recall D. McCloskey writing, IIRC McCloskey’s well-known essay about how to write better said not to fear repetition. As does, in a way, McCarthy himself in the very next paragraph.

Yeah... I'm guessing the effect is small and that their measure of walkability is noisy. I'm assuming they're using contemporary walkability scores to measure past walkability, but two things in many places will be weakly correlated. A possible interpretation is that social mobility predicts future walkability.

Ninety percent of American households own a car, and unemployment is 3.5%, so, yes, I agree that any effect would be small.

Note too the fluctuating population. People of a certain social class are likely to abandon walkable communities when their children start to reach school age.

LA and the surrounding sprawl have walkable neighborhoods, but it would be hard to do a random A to B.

So it's what you are looking for, a walk to restaurants, or to meet a client.

Do towns with high walkability have less forced busing?

Ask Kamala.

This is just an excuse for urban social engineers to continue their war against suburbia and the automobile.

High gas prices from Trump's war in Yemen are doing that quite nicely.

Paid 2.46 yesterday. But if it's higher than you like, think of it as a carbon tax.

I paid $3.86, but I live in California. We have a carbon tax on fuels, a tax tax, and other tax taxes on taxes on gasoline. Yest nobody changes their behaviour. They have to drive to work, and housing close to work is expensive, very expensive. But, those taxes go to a good cause - the money is distributed to solar and wind companies that donate money to Democrats. The CEOs of those state funded companies are very rich as a result. Though the money does trickle down. I know a couple - illegal aliens from Brazil - who house sit an ocean cliffside mansion, used a few times a year by a solar company CEO who actually lives in yet another mention in San Francisco! Here in the coastal city hosting the empty clifftop trophy house we have an "affordable housing crisis". The proposed solution is always the same - state funded high density stack and pack apartments along the congested bus routes. The buses are mostly empty because they are subjected to the same congestion as all the cars only the bus is slower. Riding a bicycle is actually faster than the bus, but more deadly. Many of the bus riders are subsidized, so the few riders are incentivized to take the bus - the power of free.

Now, let's talk about upward mobility and walkable cities, especially my city. Only the wealthy parts of the city are "walkable". And yet poor, illiterate illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America are able to sneak across the border, find a job and a couch to sleep on, save their money, and the first purchase they make is a funky old but drivable car. The next purchase is a "housing upgrade", like maybe a bed in crowded "shared" housing. The next purchase is a car upgrade.

Whenever I drive, yes drive, down the coastal highway past some of the richest farmland on the planet I am amazed by all the beautiful cars parked near the poor, illiterate, illegal aliens doing stoop labor only a few hundred feet away. Beautiful vehicles - big shiny late-model SUVs, shining Toyotas, big fancy late-model American trucks - Dodge Rams, Toyota Tundras, Ford F-250s, you name it. Some of those workers will become supervisors, irrigation specialists, heavy equipment operators, mechanics, etc. Some will start their own businesses. They do all this even while sending money to their families back home.

And yet, despite all this evidence right under our noses, we are led to believe that we need to create walkable cities with high-density housing and subsidized public transportation.

Maybe we should open the borders and flush out all the weak-kneed losers.

CA requires a special blend of gas that limits the number of refineries that produce it, which means price spikes when those refineries go off-line.

And why shouldn't they, as evidence piles up that automotive smog is very bad for the population?

"We know that smog poses serious threats to human health. A 2018 EDF analysis found that smog increases the risk of respiratory disease, heart disease, and early death. It also found that our current national ozone standard is not protective enough; smog exposure still causes approximately 5,000 premature deaths per year in the US."

Let's hope that President Trump kills all of California's special privileges to enact the green agenda.

So much for federalism and the states as laboratories of democracy.

Yemen? Piffle. Bomb Iran!

Ample free and convenient parking beats walkability.

Yeah, right. And you can drive your car to the gym, and get on the treadmill, where you simulate moving your body across the ground.

Says the supposed Orange County mouse ...

Along the beach we have a few people who get along without cars. You go inland, and it is indeed "drive to the gym to get your aerobic."

I said treadmill, but it's spin class as pretend bicycle as well.

I'll admit that if you have to drive, easy OC parking is more civilized than LA.

Urban design should be done in the interests of city residents who are the ones paying the taxes, not suburban residents. The US doesn’t design our infrastructure for the benefit of Mexicans; nor should city infrastructure be designed for the benefit of suburban residents. If suburban residents don’t like it; they are free to move to the city and become city voters/taxpayers.

The libertarians just don't want planning, they want natural beauty that springs forth from the invisible hand, like the drive on the I-10 through Houston.

Yep, all infrastructure is designed by the government. Suburban-centric design as happened 50 years ago ruined many inner cities, and it is high time to reverse it.

As a libertarian, I find the car-free lifestyle in a walkable neighborhood to be quite liberating. Think about it--you don't have to register a car, you don't have to pay taxes on it, you don't have to take it in for required inspections, you don't have to get or renew a driver's license, and you aren't at risk of getting in trouble for traffic violations (the most common reason most people ever have to go to court). Being car-free significantly reduces one's interactions with the government, and isn't that what libertarianism should be all about?

I was thinking about the unzoned frontage roads, but your point is taken.

...As a libertarian... and ~Let's ban... don't always work together. How about the city folks live in the city and the suburbanites live in the suburbs. There's a lot of cities where they count on the suburbs for their tax revenue.

I never said I want to ban anything. I said city design should be done to make things convenient for people who live in the city, i.e. designing for walkability. Such design would be closer to the free-market ideal, as it would eliminate many government requirements such as minimum parking. People would still be free to drive; it would just be more convenient and save money not to.

No, people with families like the additional space and better amenities of the suburbs, and plenty of suburbs subsidize cities. E.g., few want to live in a sh*thole like Detroit.

Urban design should be done in the interests of city residents who are the ones paying the taxes

Good point. Furthermore, construction of "Interstate" limited access highways serving cities is at least partially paid for by city landowners. These highways increase the value of suburban property that becomes more suitable for homes of commuters, which consequently lowers the value of urban residential property. Urban land owners subsidize the declining increase of value of their own property. But, maybe that's good thing.

Forcing people to live in cul-de-sacs 30 miles from work, connected only by 10-lane roads is unprecedented in human history.

But no, making it easier for people to live close enough to walk to stuff (eg the last 10,000 years of urbanization), that's social engineering.

I don’t see any “forcing” going on. People chose to live there.

It’s not been within the last few years that people had the option to live beyond routine walking distance - there was, except for a tiny minority who could afford horses in some instances, no choice. And cities were by today’s standards, very small, in both population and area, often constrained by the area that could be walled.

You're right in that there's no forcing going on in the sense that nobody puts a gun to your head. But there is a high subsidy in favor of homes in the suburbs and roads, and outright bans on building more in walkable neighborhoods with fewer cars.

As an urbanite, I want my tax dollars back.

" I want my tax dollars back." Don't worry, you're not paying for it. Suburbs are responsible for their own streets, and streets wear largely according to their use, so the heavily used urban streets get replaced more often.

No, they absolutely are not responsible for their own streets. They very frequently get state transportation money for road repair & maintenance. We have massively overbuild car infrastructure, and the maintenance costs are quite high.

Making it easier for people to walk and worse, to ride bicycles, frequently means fewer, slower roads to benefit a handful of hipsters.

Yeah, they should find parking at spin class like a normal person.


Road diets are indeed idiotic:

Until they get mugged.

"We identified the “walkability” of a city ... as a key factor in determining the upward social mobility of its residents."

There comes a time when people who claim that a correlation must be a cause should simply be called liars, and driven from polite society.

+1 That was my first thought.

If it weren't for the skack-jawed acceptance of causation/correlation claims the social sciences - including economics - would be out of business.

Economics is just correlation with graphs.

Car ownership is expensive, approximately $10,000 per year on average. So it seems that walkability would mechanically increase social mobility simply by saving households the expense of owning and using a car, freeing up thousands of dollars for other purposes.

The lack of political will on the issue of high car prices is also interesting. Households on average spend more on vehicle purchases than health insurance, and three times as much on vehicle purchases than education. Overall, transportation is the second largest category of household expense next to shelter, twice as large as healthcare and almost seven times as large as education: Yet despite this, we are constantly hearing about how the government needs to intervene to keep healthcare and education prices down, but we never hear about how it needs to intervene to keep car prices down even indirectly such as through greater walkability; saving your residents money from not owning a car is rarely given as a reason to promote walkabilty (to the contrary, it seems that there is a stronger lobby to keep car prices up through tariffs and taxpayer bailouts). The car industry is an underrated example of an industry with political power and cultural cachet.

Bicycle ownership is a cheap and efficient alternative to both automobile and pedestrian travel in urban environments but unmentioned here.

One has to be careful of the 'b' word. It triggers a bunch of people who've never obeyed a speed limit into telling you about the horror of seeing a cyclist coast through a stop sign once.

But, there's a reason they're all over the developing world: a bicycle is a great, cheap, effecient means to increase one's mobility (physical mobility obviously, and likely economic mobility). Raising the social status of bicycling would likely be a great benefit to the lower classes in the US.

Biking is a viable option - it's cheap and it's great exercise. I used to do it 52 weeks per year for almost 15 years in Central California except during hard rains. Things have changed. Car and truck traffic has worsened due to population growth and with the growth in cellphone and gps use dangerous distracted driving has increased. We have hazards that didn't exist 25 years ago. Add to that the increased size of the vehicles, like SUVs and large pickups both with wide mirrors extending into the path of the cyclist. Contractors driving large pickups one handed while talking on the cellphone and moms picking up their kids driving massive SUVs while texting are among the scariest. There aren't that many cyclists on these rural/suburban roads yet the number of cyclist deaths seem high - perhaps due to the availability heuristic. I was lucky to have been able to bike during a now passed golden age in cycling. Final note, these changes all occurred on the same roads over a 30+ year period.

It's dangerous out there.

Yup, which is why I don't bicycle.

But unless we have government (at all levels from local to federal) completely exit the market for transportation infrastructure, there is no free market policy to follow. Even a small town has to decide to build roads for cars, or bike paths, or sidewalks, or all three. In the US, most governments put most of their expenditure on automobile infrastructure, with public transit (and for that matter trains and airplanes) lower on the list, pedestrians lower still (partly because many of their needs can be met cheaply, with sidewalks and crosswalks), and bicycles usually at the bottom of the list (unless we count skateboards and scooters).

This is not a place where we can let the market decide, because the market doesn't decide whether to build a road or a bicycle path. It's a political or policy decision.

I'm dubious that most cities are making optimal transportation decisions, but there's a lot of unknowns here. Countries ranging from the Netherlands to China make much more use of bicycles than the US does, but it'll take more than building some bike paths to induce Americans to swap their cars for bikes.

China has completed highway projects that rival or surpass anything in the US. They make extensive use of bicycles however because it makes sense for people who would otherwise be pedestrians. Americans have cheaper access to used cars and easy financing for the the same. Practically any American that wants a car can get one.

I find bicycling much safer than it was in the past, because most cities have built out far more bike infrastructure and because more people are out biking. I can commute the 4-ish miles to work by bike now entirely on dedicated bike lanes/trails that did not exist 10 years ago.

For sure. I think it's odd how bicycling is now associated with the "elites", when in fact it is a great money-saver and therefore should be adopted by poor, financially strained people. This is evidence of how messed up the discourse is.

That just reflects how the term "elite" has evolved into a general term of disparagement for people who used to be called yuppies. Adults who bike are probably disproportionately young, white, have fancy credentials, and live in or close to a big city. If these people are "elite," what does that make Jerry Seinfeld with his garage full of luxury cars?

Indeed. In this internet soaked era, lots of words get thrown around that don't mean what they used to: fascist, racist, communist, elite/elitist, even 'facts' and 'news' mean different things to different people.

Yeah, I’ve wondered about “status” with respect to bicycling for a while. For me a key component is dodging $15+/day in either driving & parking or bus & metro.

For others that seems not to be the case though, and the default for one who can afford a car is to use the car, even if the daily cost over a year would exceed the cost of a bike. I’ve generally assumed that has to do with practicalities such as safety or storage, but I do wonder if it could also be something like status - i.e. only people with a certain amount of confidence in their situation are willing to be the oddballs and ride a bike.

Just a thought.

I'm definitely on board with bicycles, but they are limited by distance, how much cargo you can transport and the weather.

I guess we don't need the wheel or internal combustion engines, then. Seriously, is it something innthe water those guys drink?!

Is it time to ban cars in Manhattan?

(My ex-Manhattan gf surprises me by agreeing. Ride bikes.)

I see. So we should implement Maiosm writ large.

A-tags are your friend.

And car bans aren't communist, any more than assault rifle bans.

Some might say exactly /i> like weapon bans :)

OK, closing tag fail. Off to for me.

Yes cars and firearms should be banned. As well as social media and access to non-approved sources of information. Imagine a world without MR, Fox News, and unmonitored communication between phones.


I was talking to my daughter born in the late 90s yesterday about how her cousin likes living in the big city. She’s not fond of it. Too expensive, doesn’t like taking public transportation because it’s inconvenient and dirty and relying on Ubers etc. are too expensive.

My daughter doesn’t like taking Ubers, etc. because on her last trip, she had crazy drivers and was almost involved in 4 accidents. She said at least if she was driving, she’d feel in control.

Since the study only focused on those where were born in the early 80s, I thought this is an interesting contrast for me.

As to cars, well, it seems more electronics and more safety and options...I love my climate-option seats and heated steering wheel, but if I had to, I could do without.

I wouldn’t mind a stripped-down version of a car.

Correlation watch?

That wax my thought as well. What if walkable cities just happen to be located in areas of rapid economic growth? Silicon Valley, for example. Or what if walkability improves some cities only because their policies made it unusually expensive and difficult to own a car?

Did the authors try to find cities that have increased in walkability while not showing these effects? Or did they cherry-pick the data?

Also, I can believe that in some cities improving 'walkability' could be related to reductions in crime, and the benefits come from that and not the walkability per se.

It's useful to keep a skeptical mind on this kind of research, because it so closely aligns with the vision of the 'New Urbanist' movement which seeks to revitalize dense city cores, punish suburbs to shrink them, and encourage the population to walk or cycle everywhere.

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