What Makes a Place Walkable?

Bikes at Work has an interesting database that uses census numbers to show how many people walk to their jobs in cities, towns and villages across the US. A quick search for the highest walk-to-work locations for towns with over 1000 people yields the following results:

Location POP % Walk to work
Naval Academy, Maryland 4264 82.99%
Houghton, New York 1730 67.84%
Alfred village, New York 3926 60.98%
West Point, New York 7138 60.25%
Air Force Academy, Colorado 7536 59.63%
Parris Island, South Carolina 4841 58.45%
Lackland AFB CDP, Texas 7132 58.09%
New Square village, New York 4707 57.28%
Hamilton village, New York 3510 55.56%
Avalon city, California 3181 52.79

Almost all of these are centered around an institution, like a university or military academy, where many are housed very close to their classes or jobs. The concentration of people and buildings reduces the amount of space that could be used for roads and parking. Raising the threshold to at least 20,000 residents:

Location POP % Walk to work
Ithaca city, New York 29006 43.33%
Athens city, Ohio 21192 42.39%
State College, Pennsylvania 38420 41.8%
North Chicago, Illinois 36001 29.06%
Oxford city, Ohio 22087 28.86%
Fort Bragg, North Carolina 29246 26.13%
Cambridge, Massachusetts 101355 25.76%
Fort Hood, Texas 33595 23.87%
College Park, Maryland 24590 23.28%
Pullman city, Washington 24740 22.53%

Again, with few exceptions, we find the pattern of high walking rates and major institutions of higher learning, military bases and areas of mixed use development. Now, setting the bar at over 250,000 residents:

Location POP % Walk to work
Boston, Massachusetts 589141 13.36%
Washington, DC 572059 12.27%
New York City, New York 8008278 10.72%
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 334563 10.02%
San Francisco, California 776733 9.82%
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1517550 9.22%
Newark, New Jersey 273546 8.03%
Seattle, Washington 563375 7.72%
Baltimore, Maryland 651154 7.28%
Minneapolis, Minnesota 382452 6.85%

While all of these cities have colleges and universities and other major institutions, they are part of a very large mix and cannot alone account for why these cities are on the list. Even controlling for population density does not account for this distribution. These are cities that grew to sizable populations before the automobile, which may explain why they are on this list instead of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. Surprising in their absence, meanwhile, are Chicago and Portland. They aren’t that far off, but while both cities receive a lot of credit for their green initiatives they don’t seem to encourage walking to work as much as the cities above.

An even better measure of walkability than the percentage that walk to work would be the number that walk to the grocery store or pharmacy. Walkscore as a defining metric for such an assessment has its flaws, but is generally useful. Looking at both the Bikes at Work census analysis and Walkscore, it would seem that there are two major factors that influence the walkability of a city or town: institutional presence and pre-auto urban design.

The key to both appears to be co-location of housing with the various destinations that people need and desire. But there is a choice here that seems worth considering in greater depth. If we want to create a post-carbon society, creating more walkable communities seems like a major priority. But what kind of walking towns do we want?

  • JK

    Glenn, as you know typically only the longest leg of the trip to work is counted. So the millions of walking trips New Yorkers take to the bus or subway do not show up, nor do bike to transit trips. So this is a pretty crude tool to measure walking. Land use and proximity of housing to workplaces also matter. In places with highly centralized employment, like NYC, you have lots of long transit trips — which is why NYC has among longest commute times in the country. Even looking only at journey to work skews things. In much of NYC it is easy to walk to school or shopping, but our journey to work trips are among the longest in the country. I suspect that a careful measurement of all trips — not just journey to work — would show a much higher walking share in NYC.

  • I agree – the insight I got from this bit of research was more that institutions (universities & military bases) have similar attributes to dense, mixed use cities.

    This is what rural village life used to look more like – centralized town where people lived, slept, socialized, worshipped, traded and then they would go out to the fields to work the land.

  • Clarence

    A few weeks ago, I read an article in the Daily News that the city that has the highest number of walking commuters as a percentage – residents who only use walking no other means – to get to work is Philadelphia.

    I see Philadelphia turns up pretty high here on the list, though not number one. So as JK pointed out, this list may be skewed.

    As for Portland not appearing – from my pretty good familiarity with having been there so often this is not surprising at all. The way Portland is laid out explains alot why bike commuting is so high. There are good sized distances to cross to get to other neighborhoods, jobs, visiting friends. Unlike NYC and other cities, it is far easier to take transit or bike or even drive – often when I chose to walk in Portland I wouldn’t see very many people doing the same.

  • phil

    philadelphia is often listed high on the walk-to-work lists because the central city area (called “center city”) has a very high rate i think the percentage is ~ 37% (2000 census). However, the rest of the city has a much lower rate. so it depends on your geography.

  • Ian D

    I wonder what the data would look like if you went to the zip-code level. That might be interesting. Would you see neighborhoods in otherwise poorly-achieving cities (Atlanta comes to mind) were there is a concentration of non-drivers?

    I have heard anecdotally that 10012, with Soho and parts of the Village, has the highest percentage of work-at-home residents. The question is, is that even more green than walk-to-work? You don’t even exhale CO2 on your commute!


    Phil’s right that 37 percent of Center City Philadelphia’s population walks to work, which works out to around 33,000 residents. In the entire city, only 8 percent walked to work according to the 2006 American Community Survey.

    Chicago’s Loop is more like the typical American CBD with comparably few residences. The very walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods in Chicago seem to be a few EL stops removed from the employment opportunities downtown.

  • knappster

    My concern about working at home is health.  Is it “green” to have insufficient exercise?

    Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that two major street in Minneapolis (Park and Portland) have extremely wide sidewalks to accommodate the thousands of workers who used them during the early 20th century.

  • Robin

    having lived in New York and State College and spent quite a bit of time in Philly, I think its obvious what makes these places have more ped commuters, its a pain in the butt to drive. Just as you see in many European cities, narrow and confusing(by car) street design, mixed with congestion and little parking makes walking and biking a no-brainer. When I was an undergraduate at Penn State, the joke was that there was no “legal” place to park on the whole campus and this forced a good portion of the student body to avoid the auto as a hardship they would rather avoid. The truth is that you can stick everyone’s house within two blocks of their job and they still won’t walk(in high percentages) unless you also make it difficult to drive. Making it difficult to drive, makes walking and biking the obvious alternative, but my many cities still insists that building parking garages is going to create economic development by drawing more walking shoppers, when all it really does is draw more cars.

  • The obsession with getting people out of their cars is senseless. People already get out of the car because you can’t drive cars inside buildings. The problem is that once they get out of their car, the only place they can walk to is the entrance right in front of them and nowhere else.

    The true measure of walkability is the average walking distance, door-to-door, such that you can leave your car just about anywhere and wander around the neighborhood on foot. You can drive into a college town and walk around without having to live there.

    This is specifically what shopping malls offer to people. The lesson should have been adapted by city planners. We can have cars AND walking.

    The very advantage of living in a big city is that you can have a much broader range of employment, because you don’t have to work next to your home.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’m not sure what you’re saying, Mathieu. I thought that “getting people out of their cars” was shorthand for encouraging them to avoid getting into them to begin with. Better to take the train or bus (or walk or bike) to the college town than to drive.

    Walkability isn’t just about distance, it’s about comfort. There are plenty of studies that show that people will be discouraged from walking if they feel uncomfortable when they’re doing it.


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