08 August 2007

Walkscore.com -- how walkable is your neighborhood?

WalkScore.com will tell you how walkable a neighborhood is. Put in an address you're considering living at, and it'll tell you which grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, movie theaters, schools, parks, libraries, bookstores, "fitness", drugs stores, hardware stores, and clothing and music stores are within walking distance. (They don't seem to have a firm cutoff for "walking distance"; I suspect something counts more towards walking distance if it's closer.) It uses this information to generate a score out of 100 telling how walkable the neighborhood is; it seems to correlate pretty well with my subjective impressions of places I've lived or am otherwise familiar with, although most places I'm familiar with are towards either end of their scale and I'd like some more data from the middle.

(Incidentally, it is possible to get a score of 100, though I'd doubted it for a while; Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia is an example.)

The biggest problem is that they use "as the crow flies" distances; this was noticeable for one place I've lived which happened to be near a river (the Charles) but midway between two of the bridges across it (the Harvard and Longfellow). In most cases this doesn't seem that serious, because of a fact about development patterns -- the places with "inefficient" street patterns (where as-the-crow-flies distances tend to be the worst understimates) are places with low population density anyway.

There's an interesting picture illustrating the efficiency of grids of streets, showing all the places within a one-mile walk (via streets) from a point in downtown Seattle and similarly from a point in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. The area (in the plane) filled in in the case of the grid is much larger. It makes me wonder -- how much gasoline could we save by designing in such a way that there weren't so many damn cul-de-sacs?

I recently came across Michael Bluejay's claim that walking is less efficient than driving, in terms of fuel consumption, if you eat like a typical American (i. e. lots of meat). This is because walkers need more food than drivers. It looks like a vegetarian walking is more fuel-efficient than a typical car, and that cyclists, whether meat-eating or vegetarian, are more fuel-efficient than the typical car.

However, as Bluejay points out, this is only true on the level of the individual person who has to make a trip to a certain place. On the level of a whole society, if we develop our communities in such a way that they're friendly to walking, people will travel less miles -- because our communities will be more compact, so one can get to the same number of different places with less travel. In fact, car-unfriendly communities are necessarily more compact, simply because less space is taken up by roads and parking lots! I suspect there's a "critical density" of some sort below which a vicious cycle starts: enough people have cars that businesses feel they need to offer free parking, which lowers the population density, which means even more people get cars, which means more free parking, and so on.


John Armstrong said...

86/100 at my new place.

I'd say more, since they fail to take into account what sort of stores and such are located. Yes, the store right behind my building is a grocery, but it's also a deli and a liquor store, and darn good on both counts.

dan said...

Wow. My old apartment when I was a grad student scores 97. God, I miss living on a pedestrian mall...

(Where I am now scores 60, but I don't know how good their databases for Canada are. Though the centre of the town I live in now scores 87.)

Flooey said...

My current apartment is a perfect 100/100! Of course, I live in Manhattan. My old place, which was also in Manhattan, but so far away from the core of the city that people didn't realize there was any island left up there (hence my moving) scores 86.

For comparison, my childhood home in the Bay Area scores 52, and my old apartment in Los Angeles scores 78 (despite the fact that I never walked anywhere there, because LA is so walker-unfriendly).

I have read interesting things regarding the effect of things such as parking lots on commercial areas. There are claims that parking lots are actually bad for retail for a number of reasons, including being generally poorly lit (making the area seem more dangerous at night), making the average number of stores per area smaller, and breaking up the flow of the storefronts (which discourages window shopping and the like). Manhattan in particular is definitely beyond that critical density to the point where 60 story office buildings can be built without any parking lots at all, which puts a bunch of people closer together and encourages more places to build retail and housing instead of parking lots.

cwitty said...

The score for my current apartment is calculated very poorly in two different ways. First, I do virtually all my grocery shopping across the street at Fred Meyer, but walkscore doesn't know that Fred Meyer is a grocery (and clothing, home electronics, movies, office supplies, gardening, etc.) store; it only calls it a drug store.

Second, it finds several places (including a movie theater at 0.82 miles away) that I would never actually walk to, because I live at the top of a steep hill and the theater is at the bottom of the hill.

Isabel said...


for some strange reason, when looking for places that scored 100 I didn't think to look in Manhattan -- this despite the fact that Manhattan is the place with the highest population density in the United States and therefore you'd expect it to be the most walkable. Certainly one always hears about how Manhattan is the only place in this country where even the rich choose not to own cars.

The two Philadelphia apartments I've had score 85 and 80, respectively; the second one has actually felt more walkable to me. This is probably because my first apartment was on a street that was wide and one-way and had lots of cars going by way too fast, and not that many pedestrians outside; I now live on a two-way street in a neighborhood with more pedestrians, which seems more conducive to walking even if the distances are a bit longer, because I'm not worried as much about my safety. But there's really no way their scoring algorithm could take that into account, because data on how many other pedestrians there are, which streets have sidewalks, etc. just isn't there. (I suspect various urban planners have looked at it for the areas in which they're interested, but I doubt it's available on a large scale.)

james said...

I just plugged in the last 5 places I've lived and have discovered that "walking distance" to me means 1/2 a mile, judging by the places that I ever actually walked to when I had a choice. Bicycling distance seems to be about 3 miles for areas that I've lived that had parking meters, and 1 mile for areas that tended to have ample, free parking.

John Armstrong said...

Punched in my parents' house and it's returning hits up to just under 2 miles away. But nobody can reasonably walk to the places they're suggesting. Also, if they count the Bennigan's as "walking distance", then the Mall in Columbia is as well, sowhy do almost no "clothing" stores pop up?

valent said...

Walk Score is great when you need to decide where to rent or buy a house. If you dont know the exact direction this service can help a lot. I personally came across one more service called Drive Score. With the help of it buyers can see how close establishments are by car.Sometimes it is more convenient to drive to some place than walk on foot. I ve found thia service at fizber.com

Barmadil said...

Thanks for the article. That's really cool.
And thanks to Valent for one more link. I've spent about an hour entering different home addresses and estimating their walkscore and Drivescore.
BTW the direct link is the following:
And there's bikescore there too :)