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Money Walks

2012 February 23
by dan bertolet

Note: A shorter version of this post originally appeared in Seattle Magazine’s “Big Idea: Transportation Edition,” for which locals were asked: Given a blank check, what single thing would you do to improve transportation in the region?


I propose a solution to our transportation woes that is over a million years old: walking.

Evolution has endowed us with bodies that are supremely efficient walking machines. Yet over the past century we have increasingly abandoned that endowment in favor of cars, an obsession that has led to a proliferation of places in which walking is both impractical and unpleasant.

But can walking really make a difference in a modern transportation system?

In U.S. cities 25 percent of all trips are a mile or shorter. Meanwhile, the average Australian walks two miles more per day than does the average American. Prior to mass transit, 50,000 pedestrians an hour crossed London Bridge. Over the past few decades the fraction of children walking to school has plummeted, and as a result in some urban areas more than a quarter of morning traffic has been attributed to parents driving to school. Nearly every transit trip starts and ends with a walk.

So yes, walking matters. The question is, then, how do we motivate more of it?

Part of the answer is better urban design, but I believe the biggest impediment is psychological. We need to break our habit of not walking, and here’s how to do it: pay people to walk.

Something like five or ten dollars a mile sounds about right. And because the key factor in breaking a habit is often simply getting a taste of the alternative, costs could be kept down by offering the subsidy during limited times only. It wouldn’t be that hard to track walkers—most cell phones have GPS. Ideally, the program would be implemented at the national level (a federal income tax credit? National Walk Week?), because that would bring the added benefit of upping demand for walkable places nationwide.

Ludicrous liberal social engineering fantasy? Totally. But far less ludicrous than a “WALL-E” world in which no one walks.


Dan Bertolet is the creator of Citytank.



5 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt the Engineer permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Or, turn that around and charge people to drive. Add a national parking tax to every single parking space near a business. Hey, I think I just ballanced our budget.

  2. japhet permalink
    February 24, 2012

    I can think of two solutions which have the same effect on choosing to walk:

    1. mortgage finance reform that takes into account the cost of transportation as well as the cost of the house.
    2. levy a carbon emissions tax on fossil fuel burning that effectively raises and stabilizes price of gasoline

    These factors, particularly combined, would reduce the demand for auto-dependent suburbs, and increase development demand where there are urban amenities, shopping, employment, and services.

    And we desperately need mortgage reform and carbon taxes to prevent housing bubbles and climate destabilization. But hey, you wanna pay me to walk, I’ll take it.


  3. February 26, 2012

    I attended a “walking ambassador” workshop organized by a well-meaning local nonprofit. They had tons of great ideas for encouraging folks to walk around our neighborhoods. I was really excited to get involved. Then I noticed they wanted to charge people $5 to participate in each walk. They saw it as a fundraising opportunity.

    Your idea is much better. Let’s get a grant to pull together the same volunteers and harness the same energy–but pay walking participants.

  4. February 27, 2012

    I am also with you guys. Let motivate people for walking.

  5. Weston permalink
    February 27, 2012

    Agreed that walking is the cure.
    And perhaps absurdity is what is necessary to shine a light on the ridiculousness of the situation at hand.
    Personally, I’d spend the money on density, and let people make the obvious choice themselves. But I agree that there is still a massive social barrier to overcome.
    So sure, why not, pay people to walk – its likely a good return on investment, but also crushingly sad it has come to this.

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