Walkable neighborhoods

How walkable is your Minnesota neighborhood?

If you're a farmer in Watonwan County or an outdoors lover in the Arrowhead, it's probably not walkable at all. You're totally car-dependent. It's much the same in the distant Twin Cities suburbs and exurbs, where you'll be lucky to have even a few amenities within walking distance of your cul-de-sac.

But cities large and small offer an asset that runs scarce in our autocentric culture - the chance to work, play, shop, study, dine out, work out and worship without ever getting behind the wheel. Even if you decide to drive everywhere in places like that, you've still got a measurable advantage over folks who've built their lives around long commutes and big-box shopping trips.

To find out where you stand, enter your address at www.walkscore.com. It'll give you a rating from 0 (car-dependent) to 100 (walker's paradise) based on your home's distance to schools, stores, restaurants, parks, libraries, cinemas, gyms and transit stops.

Don't think this gauges merely the kind of energy-conscious "personal virtue" once derided by Dick Cheney. A 2009 study shows that each one-point increase in your Walk Score is associated with $500 to $3,000 in increased home value. Above-average walkability equates to up to a $34,000 price premium over the average home in the metropolitan areas studied for CEOs for Cities.

The study's author, economist Joe Cortright, said the findings suggest "that the value gains associated with walkability are greatest when people have real alternatives to living without an automobile." But, he added, "even households that don't walk to every destination have shorter trips (and more nearby choices) than households with lower Walk Scores."

Cortright earlier showed that anti-sprawl land use policies in Portland, Ore., led to per-capita vehicle miles traveled about 20 percent below the nation's metropolitan average. For Portland's 2 million residents, that adds up -- every day -- to 8 million fewer miles of driving, 400,000 fewer gallons of fuel burned and 7.8 million fewer pounds of greenhouse gases emitted.

Every year, that yields $1.1 billion in lower direct transportation costs, as well as $1.5 billion in time savings. Where that money goes isn't absolutely clear, but millions of it doesn't leave Oregon, which produces no oil or automobiles.

"Because this money gets re-spent in other sectors of the economy, it stimulates local businesses rather than rewarding Exxon or Toyota," Cortright wrote. "Shorter distances traveled mean Portland residents have more money to spend on their homes. We also know that Portlanders spend more on outdoor recreation and alcoholic beverages. And we know that Oregonians buy fewer new cars than other Americans."

It's interesting to note, however, that Portland placed only 10th best in Walk Score's ranking of the nation's 40 largest cities, with an average score of 66. Minneapolis and St. Paul didn't make the national ranking because neither has a top-40 population within the city limits. But Walk Score reports a city average of 73 for Minneapolis, which would be good for No. 6 in the country, behind only much bigger and denser San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The bottom of the list is dominated by sprawling Sun Belt cities such as Charlotte (Walk Score: 39), Nashville (39) and Jacksonville (36).

And it turns out that unchecked sprawl may be hazardous to more than your wealth. One study cited by Cortright found that a 23-minute commute had the same negative effect on happiness as a 19 percent reduction in income. Another concluded that shorter commutes could actually make people happier. Yet another found that residents of walkable neighborhoods weighed an average of 7 pounds less than their car-dependent counterparts.

"It's time to replace the cliché of green policy as sacrifice and instead recognize that for progressive regions and their residents, being green pays handsome economic dividends," Cortright concluded.

To be sure, a walkable lifestyle isn't for everyone, especially in rural areas. But with rising fuel prices, crumbling roadways and the welcome efforts of many Minnesota cities to develop compact, pedestrian-friendly alternatives to sprawl, opportunities and incentives abound for a greater reliance on non-motorized transport.

It's the wise choice that can make you not only healthier and wealthier, but also happier.

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Unfortunately, Walkscore doesn't walk the walk

It's troubling to see the magnitude of people gravitating toward Walkscore and thinking that it is a real measure of walkability. Walkscore should not be used to analyze how walkable an area is as it does not consider the three most critical factors of walkability:

1. Connections: Walkscore can't tell if sidewalks exist or not. It can't even evaluate if there's a street to connect to a destination that it tells you is within a walking distance of your address. You might need a machete and steel-toed books to walk to the doctor's office.

2. Actual route distance: Walkscore measures crowflight distance, not actual walking distance. I live in a neighborhood that has several destinations within a 1/2-mile radius. Too bad it takes me more than a mile to walk to them because of the street system along a major 7-lane arterial highway.

3. Land Use/Design: You could have the most "walkable" area according to Walkscore, but if you're walking in front of a Walmart or other horribly designed commercial or residential strip, you won't find the area to be very pedestrian-friendly.

The recent Congress for the New Urbanism conference was held at the Hilton in downtown Atlanta and the theme was relating public health to the built environment. Type its address into Walkscore (255 Courtland Street NE, Atlanta, GA) and it will tell you that it is a "86 - Walker's Paradise". It ignores the fact that there are 4- and 5-lane one way streets with high speed traffic surrounding the hotel. I-85/75 runs to the north and east of the hotel and is a major pedestrian barrier. The restaurants that are deemed by Walkscore to be close by are buried within nearby Marriott and Hilton hotels that are 1960s/1970s behemoths. It is hardly a walking paradise; it may be in a downtown are but the street system is strikingly suburban and very unfriendly to someone wanting to venture out and explore downtown Atlanta on foot.

Now try this address: 463 Western Boulevard, Jacksonville, NC (note that's NC, not FL). Good ol' Walkscore tells you this is a "74 - Very Walkable". Now go view this address on Google Earth or with a satellite view in Google maps. You'll see this is one of the most suburban-sprawl infested areas of the United States. It has several destinations within a "walkable" distance but has no sidewalks, no crosswalks and no local street connections to get to the hospital, doctor's offices, college, restaurants, bookstore, etc. This address is for the Hooter's in Jacksonville - a big hangout for local Marines at Camp Lejeune.

Now, download the Walkscore app to you iPhone and randomly test it as you move through urban areas. It's fatal flaws will become evident after two or three locations.

Very good points raised,

Very good points raised, TeflonDon. Your third point is one that I have brought up to those who, despite being supporters of smart growth, also favor minimal architecture. You can't expect pedestrians to be terribly excited about walking down a street that has characterless buildings even if the neighborhood is physically walkable. Modernist architecture is designed to accomodate the car - it's the kind of builiding design that's fairly easy to digest going 40 mph, but not 5.