Cool New Thing: What’s Your Walk Score?

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As if USA Today featuring the "Complete Streets" movement on its front page weren’t enough to make one realize that walking is the biggest new way to earn your "green" points, a cool web site, Walk Score, rates the walkability of any location in the United States on a 0-100 scale. Based on the number of retail businesses and amenities near an address, this site analyzes how frequently one is likely to need to drive in the daily course of life. The closer things are to the places you’re likely to need, the better your score. Finally, a site that attempts to quantify the economic, environmental and social benefits of living in a city.

Above is the walk score for the Rocky Mountain Institute, the environmental think tank with the slogan "Abundance by Design." Given their score, 6 out of 100, one can see why they are focused on creating super-efficient vehicles that run on food but are silent, as far as I can tell, about the benefits of driving less, walking more, and interacting more with ones neighbors.

By its own admission, Walk Score has its flaws. Most glaringly, it does not include the proximity to transit stops. Also, it measures distance to a destination as the crow flies instead of as the cul-de-sac bends or halts one’s journey. But after plugging in a bunch of addresses, it seems remarkably accurate. Take for example, what has got to be the most walkable neighborhood in the country, planned, according to legend, by 17th century Dutch cows. When I lived there, I could go to my office, the subway, multiple restaurants, the pharmacy, and a bar without crossing the street, and the supermarket, the bank, more restaurants and bars and the bookstore were all just a minute or two away on foot. Walk Score, I think, rated it correctly:

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  • One big flaw I’d note is ignorance of sidewalks. I’ve lived half a mile from lots of retailers before, but they were on a strip of shopping centers that I couldn’t easily walk to because of the lack of sidewalks and the general assumption that pedestrians would never ever walk there.

  • Mitch

    A cool idea, though it still needs some work. When I plugged in my home address, near the University of Wisconsin campus, I found a listing, under “schools” of administrative offices located a few blocks off-campus (e.g. trademark licensing for the Athletic Department), but not the actual labs and classrooms.

    I also found a bookstore that closed about ten years ago, and a movie theater and coffeehouse that closed more recently.

    But my neighborhood’s score (78 out of 100) was fairly valid, so I’m generally impressed with this tool.

    The next question: what would a “bikescore” application look like? How would it be different from this one?

  • Welcome back AD!

    I agree that this tool is stunningly accurate. While it leaves out many of the walkability factors that are traditionally invested in (particularly the traffic calming, walking infrastructure that the co-creator of this tool Dan Burden has for years lead the way on) as well as many of the factors we are just starting to focus on, it really reveals very powerfully the land use/transportation connection that has been ignored for so long.

    The goal of transportation planning is to get people places, but we have focused on mobility degrading very places our transportation system is meant to bring us to. If we include in transportation planning the goal of creating places worth going to, where we can accomplish many goals, that is the paradigm shift necessary to creating efficient transportation systems. Transportation planners should be placemakers first!

    This recent study from some friends at the UW seems to give a good explanation of the accuracy of this tool:

    Destination Matters Most in Creating Walkable Communities, Research Shows

    Seattle has plenty of parks, walking trails and easy hills, and its elderly know that their health depends on an active lifestyle, but a University of Washington research team found that what makes them walk most is the presence of grocery stores, restaurants and bars within a half-mile of where they live, with Urban Design and Planning Professor Anne Vernez Moudon saying, ”The strongest relationship was with daily places where we go for eating and socializing.”

    The elderly’s readiness to walk, she observed, depended on distance to stores, length of blocks, and perceived safety, and among transit users also on proximity to bus stops.

    The team, reports Associated Press writer Donna Gordon Blankinship, tracked walking habits of 936 members of the Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative, all between 65 and 97, matching these findings to urban geography data, with the results published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

    Lead researcher Dr. Ethan Berke, currently at Dartmouth Medical School, New Hampshire, said, ”If you are able to walk to a destination you would normally drive to, then you’re going to get physical activity in your everyday life.”

    Considering exercise one prescription against Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, obesity, heart problems, depression, cancer and other ailments, the writer observes, Dr. Berke is now researching its connection with mental health.

    One of the participants of his Washington walkability study, writer and actress Anne Ludlum, 75, who lived in urban centers most of her life, believes in that connection.

    ”I’ve always found that living someplace where I could walk to everywhere I needed to go,” she said, ”made me much happier and undoubtedly healthier.” — The Columbian 2/18/2007

  • Here’s an interesting quetsion: what’s the LEAST walkable address in Manhattan, or Manhattan south of, say, 125th Street? I can’t get it below 90 — can you?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I got an 89 with Waterside Plaza

  • Lots of interesting comparisons.
    My house, in the center of Berkeley gets a 92.
    Christopher Alexander’s house in the Berkeley hills gets a 43.
    My mother’s house in Brooklyn only gets a 71, though her neighborhood is at least as walkable as mine – probably more.

  • As I discuss in more detail on my own blog, the index is best thought of as a potential walkability score.

    An area with lots of amenities is potentially walkable. An area with no amenities and lots of sidewalks is not walkable in the sense that the Walk Scorecard intends.

    It’s up to us advocates to make sure that a high score on the Walk Scorecard corresponds to actual walkability by fighting for better pedestrian (and bike) accommodations.

  • Great site! 43 Willow Ave in Somerville MA gets a 92. I am like a proud papa of my address 😉

  • I live in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn (and previously lived right near 43 Willow Ave in Somerville), and I got a score of 83, even though I’d definitely rate it more walkable than the Davis/Porter Square area. And that’s including a number of wrong listings. But I guess that’s still pretty good. Or maybe I’m just a good walker.

  • drose

    Perfect 100 at 215 West 92nd St. in Manhattan. Guess I’ll never have to drive again, as long as I never move.

  • The idea is good but the design and graphics should need a bit more tweaking. Otherwise- I got 100 : near Spring Street, NY

  • Rob

    This tool needs serious work. It uses “as the crow flies” distances, which completely negates the effect of winding streets and physical barriers.

    It rated my old house, 4013 Invierno Dr. Santa Barbara, CA at 43 and listed many destinations within a half-mile. In fact there is NOTHING you can walk to from this house in under 20 minutes. I would give it a walk score of zero.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Just wanted to point out that there are still some small towns and suburbs that are walkable. Even some working-class suburbs.

  • psynick

    For New York City, I think there’s a basic problem with this tool. Just looking at things like the public record of business licenses and C of O’s (which is what this software appears to be doing) would give you the impression that every neighborhood in NYC is overflowing with amenities and therefore rates 90+.

    Those who live here know that’s not the case, though. For instance, the quality of this information source in NY is very dodgy (e.g., it’s often months out of date; many businesses are operating in some capacity that is very different from what appears on the C of O or Consumer Affairs license, etc.).

    Second, it says nothing about whether the amenity is actually any good. I entered my upper Manhattan address, and got a bunch of hits for businesses that don’t exist and/or are so bad or expensive that no one shops there except in desperation. On paper, my neighborhood is extremely walkable; in reality, a large plurality of residence shop, go out to dinner, and seek entertainment outside the neighborhood, by car if so equipped, otherwise by mass transit.

    I suspect that this tool can be used to compare locations within a certain range of density/configuration. However, NYC is physically, socially, economically, and demographically so different from the rest of the country that this tool is only marginally applicable. With some tweaking of the rating scale, and some data cleansing built into the “patent applied for” algorithm, it might work, but I don’t really see how it could be useful here as is.

  • SamYahm

    I grew up on Long Island in a cul-de-sac community. In my 20+ years of living there, I walked only one time to a shop – that was in the ice storm in the 70s, when they did not plow the roads and we could not drive. That house received a 26 out of 100. Enough Said.

  • I think we’re getting too caught up in the details. Yes, this has flaws, but I think they are only marginal ones. The most important thing about this site is that to a general audience, it presents in a fun way the following three things.

    1) Walking is a good thing in and of itself.
    2) The ability to use walking to get to destinations varies greatly depending on one’s built environment.
    3) On an individual level, one should strive to live in a walkable envrionment. On a governmental level, authorities should strive to build walkable communities.

    Anything that gets this message out is a good thing. This is version 1.0. Future versions will be tweaked, but the underlying concept is praiseworthy.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree, AD. Psynick, no model of anything is perfect. Nobody disputes that the Google Maps data (which is loosely based on Yellow Pages ads) has numerous innacuracies and is out of date. The point is that somehow it seems to work within a certain range. The difference between a score of 89 and a score of 91 may be inaccurate, but the difference between a 30 and a 70 is probably significant.

    I don’t know where you live, but in my old neighborhood in the Bronx, sure there were crappy places, and I made regular shopping and dining trips to Manhattan on the D train. But there were some good ones too, and there were enough adequate stores and restaurants with the basic life necessities to make it a worthwhile place to live.

    It’s quite possible that if the residents who can afford to own cars chose instead to spend their money at stores and restaurants in the neighborhood, then the demand would allow better stores and restaurants to survive. But if a significant minority of residents are driving to Fairway, how can a decent grocery store survive?

  • Aaron is right on. The creators of the site clearly acknowledge all the ways that this doesn’t work, and what can’t currently be measured. They’re limited by the business database, and the Google API that only measures crows’ distance right now.

    What IS encouraging, however, is how this site is tearing up the blogwaves and reddit and the like due to the overwhelming interest in walkability. That sort of interest will be the thing that compels realtors, google, builders or whoever to hopefully sink more money into finding a way to measure access to transit, quality of sidewalks, and etc.

    It’s a huge step in the right direction of creating a tool that gives us an idea of how potentially walkable an area might be. But the usefulness as a tool is secondary—to me at least—to the fact that it’s tapping into a market for which there is pent-up demand, hopefully signifying to those who plan and build our environment that there’s a HUGE market for walkable, transit-accessible, bikeable, dense, green, urban, mixed-use cities, towns, and suburbs.

    Kudos

  • Jason

    Lest you New York City dwellers think Upstate is nothing but cows and forests and prisons and SUNY schools, my house in the Monroe Village area of Rochester scored an 89. Despite the flaws in some of the methodology, I’d say this is a decent tool in a broad, general, way.

  • Spud Spudly

    My Manhattan address got a 97. I wonder where the three points were lost.

    I propose another site for something that would measure “Order-In-ability.” There are at least 100 restaurants that deliver in my neighborhood, not to mention the pharmacies, dry cleaners, hardware stores, grocery stores, etc. that also make free deliveries.

  • Aaron is right that we’re missing a bit of the point with this sight. I think what makes it great is not that it’s some cool technology to help people find out how walkable a place is, but rather that it’s a very well-written communications tool explaining to the general public in very easy-to-grasp and succinct terms what makes a community walkable.

    I think the best part of the site is the “How it doesn’t work” page and the “Walkable neighborhoods” page. Those pages pretty much cover all the basics, and I think will help open some people’s eyes to some of the problems in their neighborhoods that they weren’t quite able to put their fingers on.

    The actual Walk Score calculator could become a great tool with some more work, but what’s really great about it is that it’s just cool enough to become a meme and get the general public to the site, where they’ll then learn a little about good urban design.

  • tom bar

    18 on the West Bank of New Orleans.

    Which is about right I guess. If anything it should be lower. Some of the shopping indicated is no longer there.

  • sam

    My apt in NYC scored 100, but what I found most amusing was that under parks, it listed about 7-8 locations. Omitted from this listing? Central Park.

    I live half a block from CPW.

  • gecko

    Granted shortcomings typical of tools used for human health evaluation and enhancement such as body mass index (BMI) and endurance training based on the maximum heart rate — or even blood pressure, cholesterol levels, etc. — this is seems to be a great tool for optimizing neighborhood health and that of local inhabitants.

  • Well, it does seem that listing H&R Block as a “school” is a bit of a stretch…..

  • A problem that should be addressed is the “crow’s flight” measurement. Any bicyclist or pedestrian knows you run into freeways or waterways or bluffs that add a significant zig-zag into the journey.

    On the plus side, being able to assess barriers would make this a very interesting tool that would show “natural” neighborhoods bounded by these barriers.

  • @alex

    Yes, this really is a great tool, for all its flaws it is apparently so popular that Google is now blocking requests from it due to the level of traffic. The web site claims “they are working with Google to resolve this issue” – hope they get it working again so that I can compare the walkability of my former residence in Chelsea with my new digs upstate in downtown Troy (not quite as walkable as one would wish, but better than most places in the Capital District).

  • Happy Feet

    Welcome any site that is promoting and helping to explain walkability so hats off to WalkScore for that.

    That said, the absence of info on sidewalks is HUGE and, based on my own testing of WalkScore, not at all limited to the “quality of sidewalks” but rather the existence of sidewalks period. In fact, in several familar addresses that I tested, if someone unfamilar with the area was doing some trip planning in advance and decided to walk based on the site’s feedback, he or she would find him or herself in some fairly unpleasant/borderline unsafe circumstances. The effect of not taking into consideration the existence of sidewalks is that a virtually unwalkable sprawly strip environment that happens to have a concentration of destinations can score about the same as a extremely walkable traditional, pre-WW2 mixed-use neighborhood. From that standpoint, the site inadvertantly undermines certain critical elements of walkability.

  • Well, as a former New Yorker, I have to admit I was a bit hesitant to plug in my current office address. But since it gave my little Midwestern downtown a 100/100, I love Walkscore.com! 😉

    But seriously… Bravo, walkscore people! While I do agree that it demonstrates potential rather than actual accessibility, what a powerful and elegantly simple idea. Keep working on it!

    Oh, and if you’re geeked enough about streetscapes, walkability, and place making (and want to know what Main St. got that 100/100), you can watch a 19-minute film I made as my master’s thesis here:

    mlive.com/aanews/video/flash/index.ssf?20061001_livelydowntown

    (A propos to walkscore, listen for that telltale adjective of a great block: “lots of.” Enjoy, and feel free to email me comments: kirkow [the at symbol] umich.edu.)

  • pound; propranolol;

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