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Neighborhood ‘walkability’ a big deal now, even though it’s tricky to measure

One rating system gives my cousin’s digs in Minnetonka a 22, while my apartment downtown gets an 89. But many factors complicate the scores.

Minneapolis blocks aren't too bad
Creative Commons/Dennis Brekke

When choosing their house, my parents were not interested in walking. Having spent the first 15 years of their marriage sharing one car — usually leaving my mom to drag two kids through the snow to the grocery store 10 blocks away — they saw shopping and errands, movie-going and dining out as agenda items most conveniently done by car. 

All that has changed.

Young home-buyers and renters now are willing to pay a premium to live in neighborhoods with a high “walkability” quotient, where they can navigate quickly to cafes, stores, transit and schools.

 A survey of 2,000 adults conducted last year by the National Association of Realtors found that 77 percent considered having sidewalks and places to take a walk one of their top priorities when deciding where to live. Six in 10 said they would trade a bigger house for a walkable neighborhood.

Reasons why aren’t clear

Why this is occurring is something of a mystery.

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Commentators have attributed the change to high gas prices, lower crime in urban neighborhoods and young people’s yen to live like Monica, Ross, Chandler, Joey et al. on “Friends.” I think that the computer has been a major contributing factor. Sitting alone and communing with the Internet, as most of us do for hours on end, makes us hanker for the out-of-doors, physical activity and contact with other humans.

You may think that walkability is easy to assess. Just open your eyeballs and look. But there are features you could easily miss.

When I moved to Westport, Conn. (pop. 25,000) some years ago, I planned to take soul-satisfying walks every day along its quaint winding lanes. I hadn’t realized, however, that those charming roads had no sidewalks, and that giant SUVs barreled around every blind twist and turn. Dodging them was so terrifying that I almost never left the driveway.

Enter Walk Score, a Seattle company founded in 2007 by Microsoft veterans who wanted to help people locate near places they love — and, as co-founder Matt Lerner says, “drive less and live more.”

Walk Score has a near religious belief in the benefits of walkable neighborhoods. Citing various studies, the company claims that walking  strengthens family finances by cutting outlays on cars and gas, gives people time to participate in community affairs (instead of commuting) and reduces use of fossil fuels. And, here’s something that really got my attention: The average resident of a walkable neighborhood weighs 6 to 10 pounds less than one who lives in a neighborhood that requires driving. 

If you’ve hunted for a house, condo or apartment in recent years, you may have seen Walk Score on your real estate agent’s website — it’s on 15,000 of them. (If not, you can go to the company’s site to try it.)

Feeding a mountain of data compiled from 10 different databases into a complex algorithm, Walk Score calculates a place’s walkability, ranging from 1 to 100, based on its proximity to stores, restaurants, schools, transit and other amenities.

Walk Score gives greatest weight to each grocery (3 points), because, of course, everybody needs food. Restaurants, shopping, coffee bars and banks add fewer points to the scores, which range from Walker’s Paradise (90 to 100) down to Car Dependent (0 to 24).

My cousin’s digs out in Minnetonka ranked 22, while my apartment downtown turned in a score of 89, which is Very Walkable. Try though I might, I couldn’t find a Walker’s Paradise in the Twin Cities, but maybe one is out there.

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Generally, the greater the number of intersections per square mile, the more walkable the area, says Lerner. Minneapolis blocks, which are about a tenth of a mile, or 528 feet, aren’t too bad, he says. They’re not as walkable as, say, Greenwich Village, where blocks are about 350 feet, but much better than many suburbs where one-acre zoning prevails.

“Short blocks are more pedestrian-friendly,” says Lerner. “Usually, longer blocks mean wider roads” — and more traffic.

Refining the ratings

Walk Score has refined its ratings by incorporating “Street Smart” distances using actual walking routes. Your friendly neighborhood coffee shop, for example, could be only a half mile away as the crow flies, but you’re not a crow, and if you have to detour around a freeway interchange to get there, well, it’s not so walkable.

The company is open about the system’s deficiencies; it doesn’t take into account street design (it wouldn’t have told me about the lack of sidewalks in Westport — though the score, a 9, which would have been enough information), safety, hills and weather. “In some places, it’s just too hot or cold to walk regularly,” says Walk Score. No kidding.

Walk Score is deficient in another way. Even though my current address is rated Very Walkable, I never walk to my bank, even though it’s only eight blocks away. What I would see if I did is a near uninterrupted vista of surface parking lots, baking in the summer or blizzard-swept in the winter. Dreary.

To get at this ugly (or beauty) factor, Steve Mouzon, a Miami architect, has been working on developing a higher-level evaluation called “Walk Appeal.” The idea behind it is that streets, even ones near stores and restaurants, are not created equal. Traditionally, he says, city planners claimed that Americans would walk only a quarter of a mile before getting in a car.

But he points out that in the world’s greatest cities, London, Rome or Paris, people will walk for miles and think nothing of it. But if they have to walk from Best Buy to Old Navy at the ordinary shopping center, their limit is likely to be 100 feet — not because we’re lazy he says, but because “the walking experience is just so dreadful.”

He estimates that people will stay on the standard Main Street, with stores and restaurants, for 3/4 of a mile, on a street in a dense single-family neighborhood for 1/4 mile and a suburban subdivision for 250 feet. The worst place to walk, he adds, is “one with an arterial thoroughfare on one side and a parking lot on the other.”  There you’ll last only 25 feet before climbing into your car, if you’ve got one to climb into.

Street scene a factor

In Mouzon’s schema, I’d be much more likely to walk to the bank if the view along the way changed. That means stores — mostly small, variable stores, not humungous Walmarts, or, failing that, lots of windows displaying stuff to look at, right at the sidewalk where I could see.

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He also insists that a street should be almost like a hallway; so buildings lining it should be just as tall as the street is wide. If you can’t picture this, think of which you’d prefer walking on — Park Avenue in New York, which meets Mouzon’s criterion, or Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park, which doesn’t. All of those items could be quantified to determine an area’s walk appeal.

Not every element of street life can be measured, however.

Years ago, I lived at 56 W. 88th St. in New York City, which today earns a perfect walk score of 100. No number, however, could register the smell of overflowing garbage cans in the summer, the bumpy sidewalks I constantly tripped on or the fear of getting mugged. And unwalkable Westport had an attractive and fun-to-walk downtown that locals called “The Magnificent Half Mile.”

Such factors are hard to get at. But Walk Score’s Lerner, who pretty much agrees with Mouzon’s take, is working on a feedback system that would allow people to register their likes and dislikes about certain streets and places.