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Think Your Neighborhood Is Walkable?

Aug 6, 2007
OK, I'm totally obsessed with www.walkscore.com.

This is one of those Google map manipulations created by three Seattle residents that allows you to plug in any address and get a walkability score of that location somewhere between 0 and 100. (It also shows you a map of all the businesses and services in close proximity to your address.)

It's obsession-inducing because, if you're a place-oriented person, it isn't long before you are plugging in the address of everywhere you've ever lived or worked, along with the address of your siblings, cousins, ex-girlfriends, etc. The result is kind of a Rorschach test of place and pedestrian orientation. I discovered, for example, that I have never lived in a residence with less than 60 score (kind of walkable) and mostly I've lived in places with scores in the 70s and 80s (very walkable). The lone exception was the suburban home where I lived when I was married, which scored a 2!

But it's illuminating if, like those of us around here, you're a planner who thinks constantly about what makes people walk versus what makes them drive. Because the scores are based entirely on the proximity of the address to a variety of businesses and services such as grocery stores, restaurants, coffee shops, movie theaters, libraries, drug stores, fitness centers, and so forth. Walkscore doesn't account for urban design. If there's a river or a freeway in between you and that coffee shop a quarter-mile away, that doesn't count. If there is 43% slope uphill to get to the grocery store, that doesn't count either.

This "flattened" approach to location really highlights one of the burning issues in planning: Is it services and functions that make people walk, or urban design? Planners and designers often seem to favor urban design, whereas economists and other skeptics tend to say it's proximity to businesses and services. It appears that the answer, not surprisingly, is both.

Los Angeles is a great example of this dichotomy. L.A. is very densely built and things are in extremely close proximity to one another, but because of wide arterials and other barriers, you often can't get there from here on foot. Valley Vista Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, for example, scores a 72. But if you look at the resulting map, you'll see all the nearby businesses and services line Ventura Boulevard. You may or may not be able to actually walk to all those locations.

So, Walkscore highlights the challenge of urban development in California: All the stuff is close-by, so how do you rig things up so you don't actually have to drive?

PS: The Solimar office scores a 94. That means we're in a "Walker's Paradise," according to Walkscore. Of course, our score is helped by the following facts:

The nearest bar is conveniently located in the front of our building;
The nearest restaurant is the Burger King across the street; and
"The Adult Store," located three blocks away, counts as a bookstore.

- Bill Fulton
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