On walkability and how to measure it: part 1 of an intermittent series

I’ve been wanting to write a post about walkability for some time now, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it should be a series, because if I tried to say everything I wanted to say in one post, it would approach book length, and it’s long enough already. So consider this the initial post in an occasional series on walkable urbanism, interspersed with your regularly scheduled poetry, opera, and bibliogeekery.

Among the myriad of nifty mappy things the internet has enabled in recent years, Walk Score is among my favorites. You type your address into it, and it gives you a walkability score based on your proximity to various necessities, which you can then view on a map. Pretty sweet. But when I moved from Philadelphia to New London, I started to notice some of Walk Score’s flaws. It rates my previous address in Philadelphia at 89 out of 100: “very walkable” but not quite ideal. My address in New London, by comparison, gets a 92, “Walkers’ Paradise.” I actually think my current location is a good deal less walkable than my previous one: while I can easily walk downtown and avail myself of an organic
food co-op, a couple of good coffee shops, a bunch of small boutiques, various art galleries, and the local arts center (all good things), there aren’t really any large grocery stores within easy walking distance (Walk Score has an annoying habit of classifying small convenience stores as “groceries”; it also counts the local porno shop and a small “Christian
bookstore” in a nearby church as “bookstores”), and other necessities of life are farther off.

In Philly, I lived two blocks from a post office, a drugstore, a hardware store, a dry cleaner, a couple of laundromats, many restaurants, a great coffee shop, and a wine shop. Within a ten-block-or-so radius were my favorite used bookstore, a Whole Foods, a small local grocery, a tiny farmers’ market, and the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. What’s more, I could walk all the way across the city, mostly on streets that weren’t too wide to cross safely or too traffic-clogged to be enjoyable; many of these streets were shaded by trees and lined with lovely old brick and brownstone buildings. If I didn’t feel like walking, there were three bus routes within a couple of blocks of my building, and I could get to regional rail and Amtrak easily. (I can walk to the train station here, and I use the bus system—but any bus system that runs once an hour, stops service at 7 p.m., and doesn’t run on Sundays is all but unusable for most people.) When I was out and about in Philly, I saw my neighbors; here, I’m often the only person on the street. There’s a whole subjectively perceived (but no less real) culture of walking (or not walking) that tools like Walk Score miss.

So I was pleased to see that there’s now a project afoot for an open source use of the Walk Score algorithm. I’ve signed up to be notified when it’s released; I hope it’ll allow for citizen walk-score mappers to update their local maps, to re-flag misclassified businesses, identify streets where there are no sidewalks or many lanes of traffic or lousy snow removal, and offer some commentary as well as concrete data.

And I was even more pleased to find Walkshed, a tool rather like Walk Score but with fine-tuned controls you can adjust to specify your greater or lesser need to be near various amenities—so if you really want tree cover and parks but would rather not live near a bar, or if public transit is a must but you don’t particularly care about hardware scores, you can adjust your map accordingly and it’ll show you a nice “heat map” of your city, with the most promising areas shaded in green. And it takes street connectivity and barriers to walking (like highways and rivers) into account. Alas, it’s limited to New York and Philadelphia right now, but I really hope the concept catches on.

6 Responses to “On walkability and how to measure it: part 1 of an intermittent series”

  1. Matt says:

    For a crowdsourcing walkability project check out: http://ratemystreet.org

  2. Meilee says:

    This is really neat, Amanda! I tried out our new apartment, and our score was 58. Of course, we are yet again housed in a complex at the crossroads of two major highways, so this is not surprising. San Antonio is certainly not amenable to pedestrians. This is one of the things I actually do miss about Ann Arbor. I wish I lived in a city that was more walkable.
    Then again, I also long to live in a place where public transportation is more available. I envy the cities in Europe (or else places like NYC or DC) with all the cross-country and continental trains, the buses, the subways, etc. We have a lousy bus system here and no trains (not even a light-rail between Austin and SA, which is a very popular commuter route). Instead, people opt to drive their ridiculously large SUVs and Hummers and Escalades and Suburbans — even when they’re just going a couple blocks! This is of course linked to the obesity and pollution problems down here, too. But I sometimes wonder if it’s also related to the ever-growing problem of common courtesy–because we’re not a pedestrian culture, people in their big trucks seem to want to mow other people down instead of honoring right-of-way at crosswalks, etc. It’s a little scary, actually.
    Sorry, that was quite scattered, but your post made me think about a lot of related points. 🙂 Thanks for the links!

  3. Bronwen says:

    Wow, this is really cool, even if my Brooklyn digs only rated an 85. I mean really, I have weirdly cheap produce, radical poetry and Tibetan food all within a ten minute stroll from my door. I think any of those would merit at least a 90…

  4. Amanda says:

    Brooklyn only gets an 85? That’s why I think there should be more citizen participation in rating different places — Tibetan food and radical poetry should definitely count for something!
    Meilee, I know what you mean about drivers who try to mow people down — though around here I think it’s more that they’re so unused to seeing pedestrians that they forget there’s such a thing as right of way in crosswalks, and they don’t even think to look to see if someone’s trying to cross the street in front of them. I’ve considered carrying a giant fluorescent sign that says “You’re Legally Obligated to Yield to Pedestrians in Crosswalks,” but I don’t want to distract them still further.

  5. chris says:

    I’ve recently moved from the walkable city of Saint Louis to the Geography-of-Nowhere that is the north corridor of Colorado Springs. What COS does have is bike trails and lanes (though there’s def. room for improvement). This is a neat tool, but bike-friendly should definitely be able to be included.

  6. Val Lafferty says:

    Am trying to grow interest in multi-generational housing in Michigan. It would facilitate the resolution of many issues of old and young. Recognizing the importance of several critical elements to success, transportation & walkability are so key. I appreciated your discussion… Thank you.