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M1EK

Actually, all WalkScore would need to work much better than it does now is some crowdsourcing support. "Rate this street segment for walkability", IE.

Eric Fischer

Walk Score has said that they are working on making it use real walking distances instead of crow-flies distances (http://blog.walkscore.com/2010/08/street-smart-walk-score/), although that still won't take the characteristics of the streets into account.

I hope somebody is figuring out how to rate the walkability of places from Street View pictures, but it's a really hard problem because the characteristics of the good places can vary so widely yet the difference between good and bad can be very subtle. I think the cellular phone carriers probably actually know with pretty good accuracy what streets people walk on and which they avoid, but they aren't telling.

Steven Vance

Would the criticism subside if WalkScore just chose a different adjective?

It seems the criticism is based entirely on the word, "walkable."

If instead WalkScore said, "Your score is 86 - lots of businesses nearby," I don't think of any this would be relevant.

Even if WalkScore doesn't take into account what really makes a place walkable in its calculation, one main purpose for the score remains: how varied and how many businesses are within walking distance?

PlebisPower

Great observations regarding the need to rethink how we measure and evaluate walkability and many other bases for making policy (transportation and otherwise). After all, men first calibrated length and distance in human terms to measure of the world in relation to himself - a system that clearly needed rethinking. Disclosing the WalkScore methodology and applicability more prominently is a way of acknowledging its inherent limitations, and so is a good idea too.
But the suitability of the WalkScore formula is a red-herring; there is no algorithm that will apply in the real world, IMO.
Instead I'd call attention to the observed disjuncture between the WalkScore evaluation and conditions (as observed by the Conservative Planner). If preconditions exist for a walkable community (mixed uses, nodes, etc.) but in practice the walkability of the place is attenuated or neutered as built, it seems to me that the WalkScore can be a useful metric or benchmark to evaluate sub-optimal outcomes.
So I'm less interested in a single score because it's never very useful. Instead I'd like a rubric. Then we can benchmark potential as a way of looking across them for lessons in what otherwise would be an unwieldy, messy comparison given the real world.

Leigh Holcombe

When I first tried WalkScore and tried to rate my neighborhood, the greatest flaw I noticed was the ignorance of pedestrian barriers. From the example, it seems pretty clear that the presence of freeways and super-arterials should also be considered as pedestrian barriers. Steep hills, undeveloped land, and large parcel properties (such as salvage lots, quarries, farms, airports, etc) should also be taken into account. All of this information is readily available in any city planning office, and could easily be taken into account by WalkScore.

jon

they also need to have some way to be more picky with the grocery stores category to tell the difference between a true market and a convenience store or even a business with 'market' in the name... white house/black market and boston market are not markets. likewise restoration hardware is not a hardware store.

additionally i think some categories (library, theater and non-everyday item shopping) dont need to be real close-by by foot so long as they are measured by ease of transit access. not sure how easy it would be to measure this though.

Loosh

More flawed than WalkScore is their related offering TransitScore. When you type in an address, it only lists the transit offerings nearby, but nothing about those offerings. Therefore a rail line or a good inner city bus route that runs every 5 minutes looks the same as a bus route that only runs every hour 9-5 on weekdays. Whether there are transit offerings is very different from how good those offerings are - obviously - and good quality transit, not its basic existence, is what allows for life without a car. This software doesn't take these variables into account, oddly, however, so it is lacking a very important aspect of its purpose.

jon

i think maybe i'll start a business, send me $30 and i'll give you a full personalized analysis of your location, checking for true grocery stores/supermarkets, urban form and street design, transit service, topography, sidewalk presence, etc.

my point is, this really needs to be done by a person who can give their subjective opinion based on real solid facts and data and a visual observation. formulas and algorithms dont cut it.

Alex B.

@Leigh Holcombe:

All of this information is readily available in any city planning office, and could easily be taken into account by WalkScore.

Indeed, all of that information is likely located at any city planning office. But it most certainly is not easily taken into account. How will you adjust the weights for terrain, for example? Just how much should that matter?

On the more technical side, integrating all of that data into an easily searchable and easily used format is exceedingly difficult.

For all the criticisms of WalkScore - and they are certainly deserved, pointed critiques - too often the critics fail to address the single biggest positive aspect of WalkScore. That is an easily applied, rough cut at walkability. No matter the flaws of the dataset, in a big picture sense, Walkscore does (in my experience) give a pretty reasonable broad-based metric for walkability. It's not a very precise metric, and we should always be mindful of the data inputs and the limitations of the outputs - but the big picture is nevertheless useful.

Brent

The true benefit of Walkscore is in transforming how people view walkability.

As the commenters above imply, walkability has two equally important components.

One is the nature of the urban space -- path connectivity, road cross-section (or even presence/absence of sidewalks), traffic volume and speed, protected crossing locations, and urban design.

Of course, the flip side is that in order for a neighbourhood to be walkable, you need to have amenities within walking distance. Or, perhaps more critically, you need to be able to make the vast majority of your daily activities on foot -- I argue that the most critical is a reasonably full-service grocery store, maybe in the area of 10 to 20,000 sq. ft.

Historically, there has been a lot of focus on the former, and not enough on the latter. It's as if designing a Portland-scale grid instead of suburban cul-de-sacs, or installing all sorts of street furniture, would on its own inspire walking trips. But it's equally important, and maybe moreso, to make sure that there's actually something to walk to.

I suspect that part of the reason is that things like street pattern, right-of-way cross-section, are things that are easily measured and inventoried, whereas it's historically been more difficult to record and measure amenities and proximity (especially in areas with high Walkscores), at least prior to the emergence of GIS data and Google Maps. Walkscore is the first tool I've seen to try and put a number to the presence and proximity of amenities, even if in a somewhat crude manner (in part due to a lower emphasis on the built environment).

Alon Levy

My criticism of Walk Score comes from the diametric opposite end: it makes dense but amenity-deficient ghettos look more walkable than they actually are. Where I lived in Harlem, Walk Score transformed a corner bodega with a deli into a restaurant and another into a supermarket. I can't imagine what it would do to a more walkability-starved ghetto like the South Bronx, where the only route to a park is circuitous and involves walking over Triboro Bridge.

J.D. Hammond

Alon: this, exactly. Not only do they define amenities down and confuse walkability with air radii, it also underrates the transit efficacy of highly linear neighborhoods like beaches, where everything is "on-the-way" by necessity. Ocean View in Norfolk, Va. might not be the most walkable place in the world, but it's vastly preferable to parts of Virginia Beach with significantly higher densities of business but no real way for pedestrians to get to them.

Still, it's not an entirely unhelpful tool.

Conservative Planner

Thanks for the insight and perspective. The hope of the post on Conservative Planner was to start this kind of conversation. It's been frustrating to see planners attach themselves to the existing measure as something that is relevant when it has some very significant flaws if you look at Walk Score through the planning spectrum. As for heightening the awareness of walkability and its potential, it is an admirable effort and it's good to see they are working to improve it.

Jason Lally

I think there is an excellent opportunity here to catalog the nations pedestrian networks (sidewalks including widths) and barriers using the same or similar infrastructure as Open Street Map. We are working on developing the PlaceMatters Decision Lab which will bring together developers, practitioners, academics, designers, etc. who want to build the tools and techniques to make better decisions around planning and sustainability.

Maybe this is one of many starter projects to get our pedestrian networks mapped in a national, reusable database. With the proliferation of iPhones and other smartphones, this may be within grasping distance.

Jase

Getting data about pedestrian conditions out of planning offices is likely to be very costly. I think walkscore (and google maps for that matter) should crowdsource input on pedestrian cut throughs. Wikipedia has shown us that f people care about something, like a pet topic or a local area, they will make sure the online data is as best as it can be

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