Walkability – A Jane Jacobs Metric?

There is more to walking…than walking. Soho, New York

Walk score is a software program that has been developed to measure walkability by proximity to amenities. It generates a rating of a house or neighborhood by its everyday walkability. Noho, Soho, Little Italy, Flatrion district and Greenwich have all scored a perfect 100 or very near to that in walk score’s rating metrics. They are today a walkers paradise with a wide range of amenities all within a short walk. These current national leaders in walkability are the very places that Jacobs used as inspiration for her book the Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Matt Lerner, CEO of walk score says, ‘I think that after 50 years of car-centric development people in the US are starting to understand all the benefits of walkability.  I think that the adoption of Walk Score in the real estate market shows that consumers in the US are finally starting to want a neighborhood full of things to do rather than a big house in the suburbs full of things to make payments on.’ And there are behavioral changes which support this, last year Americans drove 6% fewer miles than they did in 2004.

Walk score has been taken up widely by realtors, which use it along with Zillow to give a property a walkability score. One study, conducted by economist Joe Cortright for CEOS for Cities, found, “after controlling for all of these other factors that are known to influence housing value,” that one point on Walk Score was worth anywhere from $500 to $3000 for a house’s value. Another study, in the Journal of Sustainable Real Estate, found that higher Walk Scores “were negatively related to mortgage default,” (and, conversely, each additional household vehicle owned increased the probability of default). Other studies are using Walk Score to examine the link between where people live and how healthy they are.

“It’s become common sense to measure what matters, which is why we created Walk Score.  Walk Score helps define walkability as access to the people and places you love.  We’re trying to simplify and quantify what Jane Jacobs wrote about in the 60′s in a way that anyone looking for a place to live can understand.

Our mission is to promote the walkable lifestyle, which we define as walkability, access to the city on public transit and biking, and short commutes.  We are a software company that brings these values to how people think about real estate.’

Hard numbers like walk score are generating are helping bring these values to the table in North American real estate development, and not just the big city developers but small town, small budget operations where national trends are not usually a consideration. The applicability to finding a buyer, price and because it is becoming a default setting for realtors to advertise a walkability score is catalyzing its effect.

The methodology recognizes some of what has been lacking in measuring and understanding mobility. It is often the case that we measure transit splits for an area by the commute journey choice when in fact – 80% of journeys are non-commute related. From our perspective at Gehl, walk score helps to emphasize the point that regardless of which mode of transportation we choose, walking is always part of that journey.  Either to-and-from the car parking space or the transit stop, walking is the essential and common denominator for all forms of mobility. There is more to walking than walking. Good conditions for walking invite more pedestrians which in turn promote safety, economic activity and diverse street life that make urban areas rich, vibrant, stimulating, spontaneous and exciting places that they can be.

Of course walk score is not a Jacob’s metric, it makes no attempt at measuring the detailed role of urban form on social interaction. What it is catalyzing though is something which might play a central role in really changing perceptions and building towards building the kind of places Jacobs describes for the US. Walking is such a powerful player in creating city life that building towards this is a great place to start in building cities for people. Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Wanderlust; A History of Walking’  describes beautifully the relationship between walking and public life, “walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it…….the world through the body and the body through the world.”

Change in value, 1996-2011 (all figures in 2012 dollars). Source; Zillow.com data analysis by Christopher B. Leinberger, Brookings Institute. The New York Times

3 comments
  1. My concern about Walk Scores is that it doesn’t recognize the relationships between destinations. The real usability of a place is the ability to function in our daily lives. A big part of that functionality is my ability to do more than one thing at a time. The distance between my 1st and 2nd destination on a trip is nearly as important as the initial ease of getting to tat 1st destination. (Imagine a 1-mile square residential area with 25 people per ha (typical of Tucson) that is surrounded on all sides with strip malls or one where the same number of destinations are concentrated at the main intersections.)

    In a high-density neighborhood, there may be so many destinations stuffed into an area that the second action is easy to do in a single trip. In a low-density sunbelt city where there are fewer destinations total, those destinations must be clustered in Urban Village Centers, or it won’t be possible to do two things on one trip.

    For Walk Scores to be useful in a low-density setting, it is important to have a number that gives a higher weight to concentrations of destinations in one place.

    As important as a Walk Score, is a Bike Score. Walking to a destination isn’t feasible with sunbelt cities, but biking is. Concentrating destinations at Urban Village Centers (commercial centers) every 2-3 miles would produce an effective population density of about 400 people / ha, due to the higher biking speed.

  2. afergus said:

    speaking of walkability, i hear rumours that Gehl Architects have been engaged to work on a strategy for Hobart, Australia ? as a Melbourne based urban designer i am thrilled to hear of this, and would love to learn more.

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