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Walmart--a metric for walkability?

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Policy makers who say "our residents won't walk that far" may be missing the fact that many of their constituents regularly do.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, nestled at 4000 feet in the shadows of the Organ Mountains, is nothing special in terms of built environment. Like a majority of the USA, the city endured three generations of automobile-oriented development in the name of economic progress. Unfettered suburban growth along the fringes of the city has painted the fresh desert with acres of asphalt and cookie cutter monstrosities--It's sad to think about what could have been.

However, the central core, like many American downtowns still clinging to life amidst the sprawling cacophony of suburban insanity, is still something special. This central district, along with a few adjacent neighborhoods, represents the good “bones” of the original townsite from another age. Nearly destroyed  by urban renewal in the late 1960s, the downtown lay dormant for nearly 40 years until the mid 2000s when that people of Las Cruces were finally able to awaken its sleeping beauty. As a former resident of  Las Cruces, I had the pleasure of watching our former urban renewal-battered downtown adapt into a constantly evolving, activated space that I think any decent person would be proud of. The City spent a lot of effort trying to make this place more walkable and accessible to human beings. Of course, the community's downtown revitalization effort is not without its critics, as many residents there see the old town as a patient in a coma that is never going to wake up. However, while there is still a lot of work to be done, it's rare for great change to come overnight.

One of the biggest challenges the downtown faces is the wide open expanses that make it difficult to walk. Las Cruces, like most cities in the USA, is way over-parked, meaning it has devoted way too much space to storing vehicles, and this makes walking anywhere pretty miserable. There is so much off-street parking in this town that nobody seems to know how to parallel park because there's no reason to learn how to do it. For years they've built too many roads and too much parking, so no one ever really considers anything else to be a viable form of transportation. This then becomes an obstacle for meaningful change downtown. On one occasion I heard one City councilor, who represented the most sprawling area of the city, claim, “My constituents generally represent an older population and will not want to walk more than two to three blocks to get to downtown retail." This is a common counterpoint whenever anyone tries to improve walkability, and often the only thing planners can do is shrug and put their hands in the air. But it got me thinking about what this actually means, and how much I ended up walking in Las Cruces even in places not designed for it. And it got me thinking about one of my vices: my occasional shopping trips to Walmart. 

Las Cruces is special in that it has four Walmarts which, in my experience, is not common for a city with a population of 100,000 people. However, these gave me a great opportunity to test the validity of the Councilor’s statement by measuring my footsteps in one of them to see just how far some residents are willing to walk in the retail environment that's already there. I've always heard the rule of thumb that grocery stores put milk, a staple, at the back of the store so patrons have to walk by all the other products on their way to get to it. With this in mind, I decided to measure the distance from the closest parking spot in the Walmart parking lot to the large milk refrigerators in the back.

Using my phone, I measured the distance of around 475 feet from my car parked in a space near the door to the milk jugs at the back of the store. This means that retrieving milk and then returning to your vehicle will require, at the bare minimum, walking 950 feet. A typical USA city block is 400-600 feet. In downtown Las Cruces, the block length is 300 feet, so 975 feet amounts to 3.25 blocks in downtown Las Cruces. Let’s also not forget that most of the time you’re probably not going to get the closest parking spot to the door, nor are you only purchasing milk. So a lot of walking seems to be happening in a place where "nobody walks".

At the end of the day, the "my constituents won't walk that far" comment seems to be missing the fact that most people do walk that far, or farther, on a regular basis, within a car-centered context. The next time you hear anyone talk about the distance people are willing to walk, consider how far you might walk within a big box development in order to put things into perspective. How much do people walk in malls? How far do they walk to get from their car to their kid's soccer field at a tournament? Even if a majority of  Americans drive for all their daily needs, a lot of the time they have to swim--i mean walk---through a sea of parking  to access their daily needs.  Americans rarely think about their walking experience at the big box retailer, but they should. If people could see that they're already walking block-length distances on a regular basis, maybe it would be that much easier to get buy in to return towns like Las Cruces to people-centered, pedestrian-friendly environments.

pugsley is a long range planner working in a city planning department.

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