You are on page 1of 10

Population Shifts and Implications for

Walking in the United States


Peter Tuckel
Department of Sociology
Hunter College

William Milczarski
Department of Urban Affairs & Planning
Hunter College

July 2012

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

Major population shifts in the United States point to changes in American

attitudes and behaviors regarding walking. These shifts are likely to result in a
substantial increase in both recreational and utilitarian walking. Three
demographic changes, in particular, are likely to promote this walking
revolution: (1) the aging of the baby boomers, (2) the different transportation
priorities of young people, and (3) the decline of the suburbs.

The Aging of the Baby Boomers

The first demographic shift with implications for walking is the aging of the baby
boom generation. The baby boomers those who were born between 1946 and
1964 number approximately 78 million Americans. They constitute over a
quarter of the total U.S. population. Each day, on average, 10,000 of the boomers
reach the traditional retirement age of 65.
As the boomers become seniors, they are undergoing major lifestyle changes.
Boomers who were physically active throughout their adult years want to
maintain an active lifestyle but they know that they can no longer engage in
rigorous physical activity, at least not to the same extent as beforehand. So they
are trading in their tennis and jogging shoes for walking shoes. Even boomers
who have been sedentary during most of their middle-age years know that in
order to maintain their health (or prevent a further deterioration in their health)
they need to be physically active. As these less physically active boomers grow
older, it is reasonable to assume that their preferred mode of exercise will be
walking. Studies have repeatedly shown that walking is the most popular form of
exercise for older adults. It has no entry costs and, unlike many other physical
activities, produces little or no wear and tear on the body. On the other hand,
walking offers significant health benefits including strengthening of muscles;
lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis; controlling weight;
combating depression; and even reducing the risk of Alzheimers.

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

Moreover, when the boomers become empty-nesters and approach retirement

age, they want to live in places where they can walk more, says Christopher
Leinberger, a researcher at the Brookings Institution.1 Leinberger cites a recent
survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) showing that
boomers prefer to live in more walkable communities whether these
communities are situated in cities, older suburbs, or small towns.2 Respondents
in the NAR survey were given a choice between living in a suburban sprawl
community characterized by single-family homes on large lots, few sidewalks, and
minimal public transportation versus living in a smart growth community
characterized by mixed housing, ample sidewalks, and access to businesses and
public transit. Significantly, younger adults between the ages of 18-29 and adults
60 years and over (i.e., the boomers reaching retirement age) opted for the
smart growth community more so than any other age group.3 This preference
to live in more pedestrian-friendly communities has important implications for
promoting walking. Research demonstrates that just residing in an area in which
the physical infrastructure is pedestrian-oriented leads to more frequent walking
even among those who may not have been previously disposed to walking.
Officials in many cities, aware of the growing numbers of older people in their
midst and the enormous discretionary spending power of the boomers, are
demonstrating a heightened sensitivity to the needs of older residents. The
Department of City Planning in New York City, for example, predicts that within
the next two decades the proportion of the Citys population made up of school
children and the proportion comprising older adults (65 and over) will be roughly
the same 15 percent each. This represents a sharp reversal from 1950 when the
ratio of schoolchildren to seniors stood at 2 to 1.4 And the economic power of the
boomers is staggering. Statistics show that Americans 50 years of age and over
account for one-half of the total amount of discretionary spending.
To create a more hospitable environment for older adults, cities across the nation
are implementing changes to improve the quality of life for seniors. This means
lengthier time to cross streets, smoothly-paved sidewalks, lots of benches, better

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

lighting, and having stores in close proximity to their residences. New York City,
to take one example, is now in the process of installing countdown clocks at more
than 400 busy intersections to make streets safer for seniors as well as
introducing a host of other pedestrian friendly initiatives.5
The Different Transportation Priorities of Young People
A second demographic shift which has implications for walking is the entry into
adulthood by members of Generation Y (those born between 1980 and 1999).
This generation has a different set of priorities pertaining to transportation than
other age cohorts, according to a recently released report by the Frontier Group
and U.S. PIRG.6
Since the end of World War II until the beginning of this century, the number of
vehicle miles driven in the United States increased steadily. During the last
several years, however, this six decades-old trend has changed course.7 In 2011,
for example, Americans drove 6 percent fewer miles than they did in 2004. What
is surprising is that this trend away from driving has been particularly pronounced
among members of Generation Y. The annual number of miles driven per
capita by members of this cohort declined from 10,300 to 7,900 during the years
from 2001 to 2009. This represents a 23 percent drop. There has also been a
corresponding drop in the number of drivers licenses among young people.
According to figures gathered by the University of Michigan, only two thirds of
those 18 years of age possessed a drivers license in 2008 compared to 80 percent
who had a drivers license in 1983.8
The report by the Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG offers several explanations for this
marked decline in driving among young people.9 First, the cost of owning a car
and higher gas prices have imposed a disproportionate burden on young people
because of underemployment, unemployment, or credit-card debt to pay off
college expenses. Yet even among younger adults who are from more affluent

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

households or are gainfully employed, attitudes and behavior regarding driving

has changed dramatically. Among those aged 16-34 from households with
annual incomes exceeding $70,000, the use of alternative modes of
transportation increased noticeably between 2001 and 2009 (public transit,
biking, and walking by 100 percent, 122 percent, and 37 percent, respectively).
This same age group with jobs also drove an average of 2,100 fewer miles (a 16.4
percent decline) during this same time span.10
A second factor is the enactment of more stringent state laws to obtain a drivers
license. These Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL) laws require applicants to
spend more time training on the road, impose a greater number of requirements
to obtain a permit, and place a number of restrictions on novice drivers. A third
factor reducing the amount of driving by young people is the impact of new
communications technology on social behavior. Many young people today do not
feel the need to drive in order to get together with friends. They can connect
with their friends thru social networking platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter),
calling them on their cell phones, texting, or video chatting. This new technology
also permits them to make more efficient use of public transportation. Through
websites and smartphone applications they can easily access the fares and
schedules of different types of public transportation and furthermore access realtime data such as how long they have to wait before the next bus or subway
As plausible as these explanations are in accounting for why young people are
driving less, there is an additional reason for this behavioral change which has to
do with the overall devaluing of the status attached to driving. In previous
generations owning (or at least driving) a car was considered a rite of passage, a
critical step marking the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Now it
appears that owning or driving a car has lost some of its status among younger
Americans. The Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG report cites a recent survey
conducted by KRC Research and Zipcar which found that among respondents
between the ages of 18 to 34, almost half (45%) reported that they consciously

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

made an effort to use alternative means of transportation rather than drive a

car.11 This percentage figure was higher than that of all other age groups.
Owning or driving a car may have lost some of its appeal among young Americans
because they view cars as adversely effecting the environment. Or, it may be that
car ownership is simply not as cool as it once was, supplanted by possessing the
latest communications technology. 12 This loss of status, when factored in with
rising fuel costs, more stringent requirements to get a license, and virtual
socializing, provides a powerful complex of reasons why young people are pivoted
to walk more than previous generations.
It therefore comes as no surprise that many young Americans say they prefer to
live in more densely populated, walkable communities. As mentioned above, the
survey on community preferences carried out by the National Association of
Realtors found that younger adults (18-29) and baby boomers opted for living in
a smart growth community instead of a suburban sprawl community by a
greater margin than all other age groups . This attitudinal preference is also
matched by their behavior. Data show that in 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to
destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-year-olds living in
2001. 13
The Decline of the Suburbs
A third shift which is likely to lead to an increase in walking is the decreasing
attractiveness of the suburbs.14 According to William Frey, a prominent
population expert at the Brookings Institution, in every decade since 1920 the
suburbs experienced faster growth than their urban centers due mainly to the
increasing ownership of the automobile.15 Families were able to escape the
congestion and the squalor of the cities by fleeing to the surrounding suburbs.
Here they could realize the American Dream owning a single-family unattached
house on a spacious parcel of land. Yet there was a tradeoff. They also became
totally dependent on the automobile. Commuting to work meant traversing
lengthy distances by car. Even going to other destinations within their same
communities such as schools, stores, or offices entailed travelling by car.

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

Now, according to the latest census figures, it is the cities which are outstripping
the suburbs in population growth. The most recent census data show that
between the period July 2010 and July 2011, in 27 of the 51 largest metropolitan
areas in the country, city centers grew at a faster rate than their suburbs.16 The
resurging growth of metropolitan areas means, of course, that fewer people will
be relying on driving and more will be using alternative forms of transportation
such as public transportation, walking, and biking.
Why are the cities outstripping the suburbs in population growth? One reason for
this, of course, is the drying up of the credit market has prevented people from
buying a house in the suburbs. Another reason is the persistently high price of
gasoline (which is unlikely to revert to the good old days of under $3.00 a gallon),
which is giving pause to people who might otherwise consider moving to the
suburbs. Yet it is not just these economic factors which are responsible for the
demographic trend favoring the cities. Quality-of-life issues are also playing a
significant role.17 Simply put, the cities have become more attractive places in
which to live. Over the last few decades, crime rates have plummeted in many
U.S. cities. As a result, downtown areas once filled with boarded up buildings
defaced with graffiti again have become vibrant urban centers. So too the urban
landscape dotted with air-polluting factory smokestacks has changed its contours
as service-oriented businesses have replaced large-sized factories in the cities.
And, of course, the cities provide many cultural and entertainment attractions not
found in the suburbs and the convenience of having stores, offices, schools, and
places of residence in close proximity to one another. As noted in one
journalistic account explaining the reasons why one couple opted for living in the
city versus the suburbs: They can walk to public transportation, grocery stores
and parks, all while avoiding suburban gridlock. 18
Reflecting these demographic trends is the sharp reversal in the value of real
estate in well-to-do outlying suburbs. Up until the recent past, housing in these
affluent suburbs, in which the only viable means of transportation was the
automobile, commanded the highest prices per square foot. Today, according to

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

research by Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo, real estate in walkable

neighborhoods -- where people can shop, go to work, or run errands without
having to get into a car -- have the highest values. In fact, their research shows
that the more walkable a neighborhood is, the costlier the value of the real
As America looks to its future and determines its spending priorities regarding
transportation, it should be careful not to adapt familiar paradigms of the past in
which towns and cities were configured around the needs of the automobile and
other modes of transportation like walking were given scant, if any, attention.
Broad and diverse groups of Americans have indicated a strong desire to walk
more and also to live in communities which are more walkable. This commitment
is likely to be enduring because it is driven not just by economic exigencies. The
graying of the baby boomers, the lifestyle choices of Generation Y, and the
rejuvenation of our downtowns are likely to translate this commitment into the
makings of a walking revolution.

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012


1. Christopher B. Leinberger. The Death of the Fringe Suburb, New York

Times, November 6, 2011.
2. Ibid.
3. Belden, Russonello & Stewart, LLC. The 2011 Community Preference Survey:
What Americans are looking for when deciding where to live,
commissioned by the National Association of Realtors, March, 2011.
4. Anemona Hartocollis, A Fast-Paced City Tries to Be a Gentler Place to Grow
Old, New York Times, July 19, 2010.
5. Ibid.
6. Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Transportation and the New
Generation: Why Young People Are Driving Less and What It Means for
Transportation Policy, April, 2012.
7. Ibid.
8. Mike Ramsey. Old Mustang Is Put Out to Pasture, Wall Street Journal, April
16, 2012.
9. Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, op. cit.
10. Ibid.
11. KRC Research. Millennials & Driving: A Survey Commissioned by Zipcar.
November, 2010.

Population Shifts and Implications for Walking in the United States by Tuckel and Milczarski
July 2012

12. Mike Ramsey, op.cit.

13. Frontier Group and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, op. cit.
14. Christopher B. Leinberger, op. cit.
15. Conor Dougherty and Robbie Whelan, Cities Outpace Suburbs in Growth,
Wall Street Journal, June, 28, 2012.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Christopher B. Leinberger, Now Coveted: A Walkable, Convenient
Place, New York Times, May 25, 2012.