A proposal to build a mixed retail-housing project in downtown Merced stands to give the city something that is hard to find – a place for people to live that is within walking distance of jobs, shopping and entertainment.
Like many of the rural communities across the Valley, Merced ranks low on the walkability scale compiled by Walk Score, a Seattle-based group that analyzes how far people have to walk to reach nearby amenities.
A place considered “very walkable” like San Francisco scored 86 out of 100 on the company’s scale. Merced, at 41, is considered a “car-dependent city,” as are Atwater, Los Banos, Modesto and Fresno.
“We do build the community, unfortunately, to accommodate vehicles,” said Claudia Corchado, program manager for Cultiva la Salud, a health advocacy group supported by the nonprofit Building Healthy Communities. “We do not build communities to accommodate pedestrians.”
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Living in car-reliant communities has various health impacts, from contributing to obesity, diabetes and heart disease to societal impacts such as adding pollution to the San Joaquin Valley’s already sullied skies, health advocates say.
Corchado said the poor air quality in the Central Valley is one reason people don’t walk more, and having more cars only worsens the situation.
“We are definitely a car-dependent city,” Corchado said.
According to a report from Harvard Health Publications, walking has benefits like helping to tame a sweet tooth with a 15-minute stroll, reducing risks of breast cancer, counteracting the effects of weight-promoting genes, easing joint pains and increasing the body's immune system.
“Any additional exercise is beneficial,” Corchado said. “We need more physical activity for transportation.”
Lise Talbott, director of patient education for Golden Valley Health Center, said moderate activity like walking improves heart health and can have benefits for the body.
“I think for many people it’s a nice balance to their diet,” Talbott said. “Burning off extra calories will help keep weight stable. Every step counts.”
While cities such as Merced sprang up during the post-war heyday that saw suburban, ranch-style homes become the norm, leading to areas that encouraged automobile use, city planners are seeing a need for more walkable developments.
Not only do people drive less as they grow old, studies show that younger Americans are moving away from the car-reliant habits of earlier generations.
According to a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, the number of 19-year-olds with a driver’s license in 2014 was 69 percent, down from almost 90 percent in 1983.
With UC Merced planning to grow its student population to 10,000 in the next few years, the city is likely to see demand for housing within walking distance of stores and restaurants, said Mark Wild, a 26-year-old UC Merced student from Santa Cruz.
“I think the town needs to catch up,” the political science major said. “There isn’t a lot to do here. There needs to be more development.”
The proposed Downtown Commons in Merced would develop a 1.4-acre site at N and 18th streets into a building that would have commercial space on the ground floor and housing or offices on the upper two floors. City leaders say the project could serve as a template for more housing downtown and would appeal both to downtown workers and college students who may not have cars.
Students at UC Merced are encouraged to avoid relying on personal vehicles, with freshmen barred from having cars on campus, according to Karin Groth, director of transportation and parking services.
“We are entirely too car-reliant,” Groth said. “We try to reduce the number of vehicles on campus.”
More than 2,000 students lived on campus last semester, Groth said, and the 170 available parking spaces go on a first-come, first-served basis.
Groth said the university has worked on making bus stops accessible all over the city, particularly in downtown, near the mall and by convenience stores.
“It’s been a challenge in changing the mindset of the campus community because we are so car-reliant,” Groth said. “It’s tough for people to make that commitment.”
Would-be tenants looking for houses often ask to find something within walking distance of a CatTrack bus stop, said Mary Camper, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Gonella Realty.
The UC Merced bus service offers free rides for students and faculty who have a valid CatCard.
Non-university riders pay $2 for anyone older than 13; $1 for those younger.
Tony Nguyen, a UC Merced senior from Modesto, said he relied on CatTracks when he lived on campus, but it proved to be inconvenient once he moved into Merced.
“It was a struggle,” Nguyen said.
The bus stop was a two-minute walk from his apartment, but the service didn’t always work for him. Sometimes, the bus wouldn’t show up at all or it would arrive late because of mechanical trouble, causing Nguyen to miss class.
“Most of the time it was really reliable, but a lot of the time it wasn’t,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen finally opted to buy a car during his third year at the university and he feels more in control of his life. Now, he drives everywhere.
“It’s way better to have a car now,” he said.