By Matt DeVeau, Project Associate.
Earlier this year, Slate published a fascinating four-part series on
walking in America, examining the activity’s decline and slow
re-integration into modern life. The third installment focused on Walk Score, the free online tool that measures the “walkability of locations around the world.”
At the time I didn’t give the piece much thought. I’ve used the Walk Score
in the past, but primarily for fun. For example, I recently checked out
how various addresses that are important to my life ranked on its scale
of 0 to 100. Market Street’s offices in Midtown Atlanta came in at a
“very walkable” 78. My apartment a mile up the road is a “walker’s
paradise” with a score of 92. The average of the eight houses or
apartments I have called home since 2005: A robust 85.1. Not a bad way
to kill five minutes.
But a post last week on The Atlantic Cities got me thinking about the issue again. As the piece mentions, Walk Score is an amazing tool that is still a work in progress.
The software is currently good at measuring how far an address is from
various types of businesses and amenities, but it is still largely blind
to what an individual would actually encounter walking in an area. For
instance, a supermarket might be just across the street, but if that
street is an eight-lane highway, walking might not be the way to go.
There are efforts, of course, to improve this. The article in The
Atlantic Cities mentions one, Walk Appeal, which attempts to gauge the
quality of a walk based on the surrounding urban design environment. The
Slate piece also touches on Walk Score’s efforts to improve its own
methodology with a beta product called Street Smart Walk Score, which accounts for factors like block lengths and the frequency of intersections. One planner Slate interviewed even wondered:
Is someone working on a computer algorithm that will study every
Street View photo in the country and assign a universally-respected
That might sound a bit far-fetched, but consider that in 2006, Walk Score didn’t even exist. Today, it shows more than 6 million scores daily on
more than 15,000 sites that use its services. What might such a service
be capable of in 2018? What might Google, the company responsible for
those Street View images, do in this arena?
These questions are fascinating for those of us interested in urban
design, but this discussion is relevant in the community and economic
development field as well. I often hear that communities are
increasingly interested in providing “walkable places” as a means to
promote growth and attract talent. There is some evidence to suggest
that this strategy has merit. Market demand for walkable communities is growing and a recent study from Brookings indicates that such areas perform better economically. Young people are also driving less and walking, biking, and using transit in greater numbers.
I count myself among the latter group. My wife and I own a car, but we
both walk to work most days, and we run many errands on foot as well.
Our motivation for doing so is not based on a high-minded ideal but
rather fairly straightforward self-interest: compared to a car-focused
life style, walking is cheap. Really cheap, actually, even when
accounting for the rent premium in a neighborhood like Midtown Atlanta, a
major employment and residential center.
I’m biased, but I believe that investing in walkable places will be
important for communities seeking to maintain a competitive edge. If
this is the case, then it would certainly make sense to compare
walkability – which can be a subjective quality – over a wide variety of
places in a standardized fashion. Walk Score does this now for free.
And as the software advances (or something new comes along to compete
with it), the measurements will become even more accurate and
meaningful. That’s an exciting thought.