Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Present and Future of Measuring Walkability

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 "design score"?

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.