Walk Score: How an Online Tool is Changing the Way We Think About “Walkability”

Walk Score is a website that takes a physical address—enter yours here—and uses software to compute data that can measure the walkability of the surrounding neighborhood. Once you type in an address, data is aggregated into an intuitive interface, showing you exactly how far the nearest grocery store is from your doorstep – or coffee shop, bookstore, theater, or restaurant – as well as many other amenities. More recently, it’s started to track how transit-friendly neighborhoods are. The score is calculated from the availability of amenity options and their proximity—the more amenities you have around you, and the closer they are, the higher the Walk Score. I, for example, live in a “very walkable” neighborhood on the Westside. Even before I calculated my neighborhood’s Walk Score, I already walked to the grocery store, bank, farmer’s market, coffee shop, and many of my favorite restaurants in the area. A “Walker’s Paradise” is just out of my reach, at this time, but they do exist in Los Angeles (Notably: Downtown, Koreatown, Mid-City). In my experience, walkability was a wonderful convenience when I first moved to the Westside; now it has turned into an essential part of my life and is, in my opinion, part of what makes a community great and more connected.

This is a Walk Score walkability heat map of Washington, D.C., the 7th most walkable city in the country, according to the company’s calculations. The green areas are most walkable and the red areas are least walkable. Courtesy Walk Score.

Since its introduction in 2007, Walk Score has become highly embedded in the methods by which people seek, consider, and choose a new place to live. Walk Score numbers are found on every Zillow listing, for example, and its professional services are used on over 15,000 other realtor websites. Some agencies even allow customers to search for properties by Walk Score. “Even if it’s not the highest Walk Score, people want to know what their neighborhood is going to be like,” says Matt Lerner, the Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of Walk Score. Finding a Walk Score lends to a sort of research for the potential home buyer or renter –now you can research an area before you decide to live there. It’s a way to know if everything you need is around the corner before you move, or if you’ll be driving a few miles to access the amenities that you need. It also allows you to add amenities – like the farmer’s market or dry cleaner – and it will aggregate that information as well.

A Walk Score map of the zip code 90024, where UCLA Extension is located. Westwood is infamously very walkable.

Walk Score is bolstered by an advisory board that includes urban planning, environmental and technical experts from familiar institutions like The Sightline Institute and The Brookings Institution. Its employees, however, are software engineers, not planners. Lerner explains that there aren’t a lot of people with software background working on planning issues [like] walkability and transit”. Like co-founder Josh Herst, Lerner came to Walk Score from Microsoft. This amalgam of planning expertise and technological savvy has made Walk Score a success.

Beyond its Microsoft Alumnae, the essence of Walk Score seems just as integral to its success as its methodology and information systems. Walk Score has quantified walkability as it never has been before—taken an abstract idea and turned it into something that can be measured against other addresses, other neighborhoods, even other cities. Moreover, while you can peruse the excess of data given when you type in an address, you can also take away a solid number: 90, 86, 83, and so on—a rating system for cities that is based on evidence and a theorem, not personal bias. “Urban planners have been talking about walkability for a long time, but it’s [been] hard to get people to pay attention,” Lerner reflects. People pay attention now because “the scores are so personal”. Essentially—Walk Score has become something that people care about because it offers information that could change how people organize their lives.

It seems logical to assume that the more walkable the neighborhood, the less likely individuals will choose to drive where they could walk. There are studies to back up that people prefer cities that are more walkable. Walk Score has a section on its website called “Why It Matters,” that also cites reasons why walkability is linked to health and happiness. Even without a study to bolster this idea, having life’s most important amenities close by can make organizing one’s life easier and more pleasant—and arguably more convenient. Yet, this all leads into a larger question: the nexus of personal preference and urban planning—by which I mean—how do Americans actually want to live? Do Americans want sidewalks in front of their houses and actual places to walk to—or are Americans happy to drive to a destination even if walking were a viable option? In 2011, A National Association of Realtors survey found that a majority of people would rather live in a “smart growth” community than a “sprawl community” (in other words, a walkable neighborhood versus a more isolated suburb). The same survey found that a majority, however, were willing to accept a longer drive to shops and restaurants if it meant having a single-family home.

Walk Score is not without its critics, and WalkScore acknowledges the issues that they face when putting together a Walk Score. For example, I noticed that when researching apartments on the Westside, transit like the Big Blue Bus was not shown as an option—whereas the various Metro buses were suggested. I suggest using www.metro.net as the most accurate resource for browsing all transit options in any given area.

Glitches aside, Walk Score is still highly useful in terms of making walkability a larger part of what people look for in places to live. Certainly, it will continue to help home buyers and apartment searchers in the process of choosing where to live, by giving them a good idea of how they will organize their lives in a given area. For what Walk Score has done in its 5 years of existence, I look forward to seeing what it does in 20.

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This entry was posted in Built Environment, Housing, Open Space, Planning, Public Health, Public Safety, Roads/Highways, Transportation, Urban Design, Walkability and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Walk Score: How an Online Tool is Changing the Way We Think About “Walkability”

  1. Pingback: Walkable Neighborhoods = Higher Property Values | West Avenue Corridor Neighborhood Association

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