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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Walkability = Sustainability?

Recently, I came across coverage of Walk Score, an online neighborhood-assessment service that uses a proprietary algorithm to score an address in terms of "walkability."  In general, it takes into account the viability of doing daily errands on foot, so densely-populated urban areas, which might have a variety of grocers, book stores, coffee shops, and yoga studios within a small radius, score pretty highly on the 1-100 scale.  Not surprisingly, rural and suburban areas score poorly.

In general, the score tallies with what I know of the neighborhoods I am most familiar with.  My beloved Oxford, Ohio, where I went to college, has an average walkability score of 59, and it is easy to see why.  If you live in town and work at the university, you probably park your car in the garage and only take it out to visit out-of-town friends and relatives.  Everything is walkable in that town, and the university creates a demand for a number of nightclubs, restaurants, theaters, and shops that would not otherwise be present in a town of that size.  In Oxford, I have generally found it more difficult to drive than to walk, and if I lived in the highly-rural "exurbs" of the town and worked at the university, I would drive to a parking place, park, and then walk all day long until time to go home.

Similarly, my also-beloved Key West rates an average of 70.  Again, the town is actually more difficult to drive in than to bike in or walk, and the compact size of the island compared with the demand for amenities posed by tourists means that the only reasonable way to get around is to walk or bike.  I have not done an actual survey, but it would not surprise me to learn that there are more formal and informal places to park a bike than a car.

Home, however, is a different matter, and again I understand why.  My house in the suburbs rates a 20.  We can bike to the nearest grocery super store, but it requires a relatively difficult street crossing made more difficult by the fact that bikes do not even appear on car drivers' radar around here.  I find that I have to actually make eye contact with each driver I want to walk or bike in front of in order to assure safe passage, so busy are they with their fumbling with cell phones, car radios, and jam-packed schedules that make stopping on red before a turn a mere suggestion.  We live in an area in which we pretty much have to drive anywhere we need to go, even if the distance is theoretically walkable or bikeable, because the roads are often too dangerous to navigate.  We are in the uncomfortable position of having to drive to the gym.

But I don't know if one's Walk Score is the end-all and be-all of sustainability.  Primarily, the Walk Score favors urban areas; if you plan to utilize an outside provider of some sort for all of your needs, from food to entertainment, then you will be happiest in a place with a high Walk Score.  In fact, the Walk Score seems to place a high value on amenities in a very small radius, so packing apartments on top of grocers and coffee shops will contribute to a high score.

But if you plan to try to live independently through gardening, using wood for heat, keeping chickens and rabbits, and even hanging your laundry outside, you will probably be happier in a suburb or rural area.  Yes, we tend to get in our car every day, but we also walk into our own yard to get a fair amount of our food, and we are able reduce our dependence on others through the use of our land.  We also have a house with enough space to run both of our consulting-type businesses, further reducing our need for long commutes.  And, should we decline to drive to the gym, we can certainly get all the exercise we want in the form of weeding the garden, chopping wood, mowing the lawn, and flipping compost.

So, my final assessment of Walk Score?  It is a good tool for a certain lifestyle, and I definitely would like to see more communities make human-powered commuting easier via bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and a culture that looks out for people who are not sheltered by cars.  But the Walk Score is not a complete proxy for measuring sustainability.  That, too, is a lifestyle choice.














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