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Walk Score: bringing math to walking

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Janelle’s visit was a great opportunity to get out and explore my new neighbourhood — when I’m by myself, I have a tendency to sit on the sofa surrounded by my laptop, DVDs, books, guitar, Atari 2600, and other amusements. As, for instance, right now. But can you blame me? Those 900-page Nixon exegeses and compilation volumes of Y: The Last Man aren’t going to read themselves, you know. And who will listen to all those Spaced commentary tracks if I don’t? You? My neighbour, who’s name may be Frodo or something that sounds like Frodo? Don’t make me laugh. And yes, I know I’ve plugged Spaced a lot lately. That’s because it’s awesome and I want you to go out and buy or rent or borrow it already, so you can thank me for turning you onto it.

Hmmm… I got a little off-track. What I wanted to say was that even a boring homebody like myself needs to get out of the house and do stuff every once in a while, which was going to lead into a clever segue about this web site: Walk Score. Which is, itself, pretty clever. You give it an address, and it generates a “walkability” score that tries to give an idea of how easy it is to get around the area on foot. It’s based on research that having lots of nearby amenities is the strongest predictor of how much people will walk. Using Google Maps, it computes the distance from the location to each of a checklist of amenities like grocery stores and movie theatres and sums up the score to get a walkability rating from 0-100. Most of Manhattan scores in the high 90s. Sprawls like Charlotte and Jacksonville average in the 30s.

It’s not perfect — of the 12 amenities it checks, I actually have 10 within the “perfect score” distance of 400 meters (everything but a cinema and a bookstore), but it only finds 6 of them. And it ignores things like transit and climate. You can walk 400 meters through January snowdrifts in Regina (and I have, many, many times), but it isn’t really “walkable” in the sense that you feel like you’re enjoying any particular positive quality of life. Which is why most people don’t walks if they can help it. Which is probably why Regina is mostly low-density housing and big box stores. (Well, one of the reasons.)

But this is still a pretty cool tool for someone like me who makes a point — and self-righteously at times, I might add — of not having a car. When I was looking for an apartment back in May, I really started to appreciate just how important it was to me to be somewhere walkable. So important, in fact, that I confined my search to places I knew had everything I needed nearby. It worked out, but to be honest, I still feel like I totally lucked out to land an apartment I like in such a plum location. With this tool, I might have been able to expand my search, instead of just rejecting the entire East Side out of hand.

4 Comments

  1. Yeah, WalkScore is pretty cool – but did you see their new heat maps for 40 US cities? If not, check out New York, for example.

    I think this index is accidentally quite good. It indirectly captures things like climate through retail viability – if an area has terrible climate or transit, then people are less likely to walk, and more likely to drive a little further to somewhere with lots of parking, and therefore the walkable retail will go out of business – which gets captured by their index.

    The main problem is with data (as you noted) and categorization – each store has to fit neatly into a single category, which is rarely true. (For example, the convenience stores near me actually stock a fair selection of movies, comparable to a typical chain video store.)

    As for East Van… well, to be honest, there aren’t a lot of places other than the ones you know about. Much of Vancouver is still pretty unwalkable, at least by east-coast standards. The surprises would probably be Collingwood Village (Joyce Skytrain), the Sunrise area of East Hastings, the impending boom at Kingsway and King Edward, and I think there was one spot down around 33rd and Fraser. But none of those hold a candle to your hood.

    – David

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  2. Tyson wrote:

    So what’s your score? I got 87, but it didn’t find Little Hardware Co, Super Valu Grocery, or Melriches Coffeehouse.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  3. Excellent points, David. And I’d really like to see how Canadian cities look in the heat maps. A lot of Vancouver def has poor walkability (especially the south and east where I never seem to go. hmmm…), though I recall Toronto has a few big dead spots, too. One completely unscientific and quite possibly unjustified difference I find is that the walkable neighbourhoods in Vancouver seem a bit more self-contained. Where I am now, I can buy or do pretty much everything in the ‘hood (except go to a movie), but the two Queen East neighbourhoods I lived in Toronto (Leslieville and Beaches), it seemed like I was going downtown every weekend.

    And the walk score for my address is 73, but it misses *two* grocery stores, *three* bars, Welk’s hardware, and a bike shop, all within the “400m “optimal distance” measure. Based on their criteria, I think it should be in the low 90s.

    Monday, August 4, 2008 at 8:38 pm | Permalink
  4. FSBO wrote:

    It’s difficult to me to understand how computer counts my walk, drive and others scores. By what criterion it judges? I don’t agree with my mark and I feel upset! I don’t need most things (Gas Station, Railway Station) that computer proposing to me. But I found a service http://drivescore.fizber.com/ that offers me to choose things by myself. So my score become much higher then it was last time.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 2:13 am | Permalink