It’s time to make our cities walkable
What is a walkable city?
In a walkable urban center, people don’t need their cars for every trip. All the daily necessities are nearby: the grocery store, a park, a school, a few cafes and restaurants, and maybe even the bank are all within easy walking distance. Though some still might need to grab the car keys to head to work, they can often leave the car at home over the weekend. People who walk more will save on gas (keeping more money in the local economy), and their stress levels will be lower.
Walkability is valuable to the neighborhoods that have it, but hard to measure. How do we quantify something as complex as a walking network?
A walk score is an attempt to measure walkability. It ranks addresses, neighborhoods, and cities across the United States, Canada, and Australia. Walk Score’s methodology analyzes hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities, and awards points for each, depending on the length of the walk. It also takes into account population density, the length of blocks, and density of intersections. A final score of 0–100 is awarded, along with a guide to how many daily errands do not require a car.
However, the walk score method isn’t perfect. Numeric measurements (such as distance to amenities and block length) are used because they are simple to plug into an algorithm, but they might not provide a complete picture. Walk Score uses 24 amenities, all weighted equally. However, in real life, some are more essential than others. The score also leaves out an important factor: walking conditions. For example, it cannot account for whether or not there are sidewalks or crosswalks.
Still, whether in practice or in score, Cities around North America — and the world — need to improve their walkability to stay sustainable and competitive. Read on to discover the benefits of a walkable city, and the leaders in North America.
Why does walkability matter?
“Is being more sustainable what gives you a higher quality of life? I would argue the same thing that makes you more sustainable is what gives you a higher quality of life, and that’s living in a walkable neighborhood.”
- Jeff Speck: The walkable city (from TEDCity2.0, September 2013)
Almost 40% of American adults (aged 18 years and over) were overweight or obese in 2014,(1) and that number — much like our waistlines — keeps growing. Though diet is in part to blame, so is a decrease in physical activity. Even something as simple as more walking can help people stay healthy, and people who live in the most walkable neighborhoods do an hour and a half more walking per week than those who live in the least walkable neighborhoods.(2) One study in Utah found that people weighed 6–10 pounds less in the most walkable neighborhoods than the least walkable neighborhoods.(3)
Good health to be derived from a walkable neighborhood isn’t limited to physical health, however. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress, boost endorphins, improve confidence, and prevent cognitive decline.(4) Being in nature is also good for health — if there is a park to walk through, the exercise and the environment will combine for an even greater benefit than just exercise or just being in nature alone.(5)
Living in a walkable area is also good for the wallet. Families living in neighborhoods with high walkability and transit scores can reduce their transportation costs by 10–15% compared to typical American families.(6) That adds up, considering that transportation is the second-largest expense for most families, after housing!(7)
Living in a walkable neighborhood is desirable; walkable neighborhoods are usually closer to downtown areas, and more convenient for residents. That translates into higher property values — just under a 1% increase per 1 Walk Score point.(8)
For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind when we think about the environmental benefits of leaving the car at home is air pollution — and it’s true. A 2013 MIT study estimated that vehicle exhaust pollution causes 53,000 early deaths annually in the US alone.(9) By decreasing vehicle emissions, we can put a major dent in that figure.
But there’s more: moving to a walkable city can save as much energy in one week as a household would in one year by changing all your lightbulbs to energy savers.(10)
Walk this way: 5 of the most walkable cities in North America
New York City, NY (Walk Score: 89)
Like many other tourist destinations, New York ranks high in walk score — in fact, it’s world-famous for its walk-centric culture. They have extensive sidewalks, great public transportation, and bike share programs and bike lanes for residents (and visitors) to take advantage of. And people do; fewer than half of New York households own cars (11)— a good thing, because the average speed of cars in New York City is only 9 miles per hour.(12) The landmarks of New York are pedestrian-friendly as well: Times Square is a car-free zone, and Central Park consists of 843 acres of parkland.
San Francisco, CA (Walk Score: 86)
San Francisco was ranked the second most-walkable city by Walk Score, due to the short distance between amenities. This highlights the limits of the Walk Score methodology — the score doesn’t necessarily correlate with overall walkability. In addition to the hills, police statistics show that about cars hit three pedestrians each day in San Francisco.(13) On the other hand, the city is known for its stable, mild climate, and many neighborhoods have everything a pedestrian might need — except a car.
Boston, MA (Walk Score: 81)
Many urbanists tout university campuses as great models for walkability; they are built to provide housing, places for employment and study, daily necessities, and public space, all within a walkable distance. Perhaps this is the reason behind Boston’s high walkability — Boston has been called the biggest college town in the US (it has 33 colleges and universities, including Boston University and Harvard).
Off campus, Boston may be known for its maze of roads and tight parking, but it still has a very high walk score. The city is compact, with short blocks and high density of amenities. It’s also very flat. Boston boasts an impressive number of pedestrian travelers: 15.5% of commuters walk to work,(14) compared to just 2.8% across the US.(15)
Vancouver, Canada (Walk Score: 78)
Despite the frequent rain, Vancouver is a fantastic city to walk around. Walkability tends to be higher in cities with two factors: most of the development took place before everyone had a car, and the area has natural barriers (such as water) that inhibit sprawl. Vancouver, particularly the downtown area, has both. It’s also one of the few cities in North America without a freeway running near or through the downtown center. The Stanley Park seawall, another downtown landmark that offers views of the ocean and the North Shore mountains, is a stunning place for locals and tourists alike to walk.
Seattle, WA (Platinum on walkfriendly.org)
Like San Francisco, Seattle is a big tech hub — giant tech companies create pedestrian-friendly campuses, such as Amazon, which are boosting their neighborhoods in the most walkable rankings.
But there’s more. Seattle is one of the cities promoting walkability on both sides of the coin, with their Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan: not only are they building a safe and enjoyable pedestrian environment, they are also tackling driving. In 1986, Seattle abolished parking minimums for the downtown area, and mandated that parking can only be inside, behind, or beside buildings. They have also designated pedestrian corridors, along which any parking requirements can be waived. The City incentivizes shared parking and park-and-ride development programs.
- World Health Organization. “Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet.”
- Kleinert, Sabine, and Horton, Richard. “ Urban design: an important future force for health and wellbeing.”
- WebMD. “Neighborhood Walkability Linked to Weight.”
- Every Body Walk! “13 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise.”
- Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Sellens, M., and Griffin, M. “The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise.”
- The Atlantic. “The Financial Benefits of Living in Transit-Friendly, Walkable Areas.”
- Get Rich Slowly. “Saving money with my feet: The joys of a walkable neighborhood.”
- Pivo, Gary and Fisher, Jeffrey D. “Effects of Walkability on Property values and Investment Returns.”
- Caiazzo, Fabio. “Air pollution and early deaths in the United States.”
- Counting Pantographs. “Quantifying Jeff Speck.”
- Best Colleges.com. “Best Cities for Students Without Cars.”
- English Language Teaching. “We’re living faster, but are we living better?”
- Tyler, Carolyn. ABC 7 News. “New Legislation Aims to Protect Pedestrians in SF.”
- Maciag, Mike. Governing.com. “The Most Walkable Cities and How Some Are Making Strides.”
- Huffington Post. “The 10 Most Walkable Cities.”