Walkability is the extent to which a neighborhood encourages walking for function and recreation. A walkable community has all its key amenities in easy walking distance.
Walk Score is a measurement of walkability. It assigns scores between 0 and 100 – the closer and more accessible the location is to amenities, the higher it’s Walk Score.
Of course, it’s not just the quantity of walking that matters, but the quality. Walkable spaces should be enjoyable places to shop, visit, and live. Walk appeal attempts to understand and measure how these abstract factors can be used to improve walkability.
Walkable communities are wealthier, healthier, and happier, and that’s no exaggeration. A high walking frequency is the hallmark of a healthy community.
With all the benefits, it’s no surprise that many planners are looking for ways to make their communities more walkable. Some measures require long term planning, but many can be completed by local groups and businesses in short order.
Walkable communities have higher property values.
Walkability makes it easy for residents to take more trips by foot. It is a highly desirable neighborhood feature, and like any other desirable feature, it increases property values.
According to Walk Score, 1 point is worth $3 K in home value, or an extra 0.9 percent. The results are much more pronounced in cities with a high population density; a Walk Score point increases home value dramatically in dense urban centers like Washington DC (1.22 %), but is less important in low-density Orange County (0.02%). Because of its impact on property values, real-estate agencies routinely include walk scores on their property listings.
An independent 2009 study1 combined data from the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries (NCREIF) and Walk Score to analyze the impact of walkability on all property values, including retail, industrial and investment properties. It found that one Walk Score point increases property values by 0.5 to 0.8 percent, depending on property type.
Even if you have no vested interest in real-estate values, living in a walkable neighborhood is still good for your pocketbook. Vehicle ownership and maintenance is the second largest expense for most North American families. The ability to lower – or even eliminate – that expense by taking more trips by foot frees up money for other uses.
Active transportation has direct and indirect health benefits.
As attractive as they are, the financial incentives of walkability pale in light of the health benefits. Walking is the most basic form of active transport. It requires nothing but time and exercise – and exercise is something sorely needed in a modern lifestyle.
Most of us simply don’t get enough, and its showing in the scales. Worldwide adult overweight and obesity increased 27.5% from 1980 to 20132. All that extra weight isn’t healthy; multiple studies have shown that obesity increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, and early mortality.
Regular walking is the simple, but obvious solution to inactivity. The best way to get people to walk more? Make the neighborhood walkable. A study on urban design and health3 by the Lancet found that people who live in the most walkable and activity-friendly neighborhoods do up to 90 minutes more walking per week than their peers in the least walkable neighborhoods.
Livable, enjoyable outdoor spaces aren’t just good for recreation. They are important to public health and wellbeing.
The second health benefit is more indirect. Walking is healthy exercise, but it also reduces dependency on motor transport and its resulting emissions.
Vehicle exhaust is unhealthy for anyone who breathes air, and that scientific consensus is gradually trickling into the public awareness. Many cities are shifting towards sustainable transportation options to cut down on air pollution, and considering the numbers, it’s remarkable that the problem isn’t being addressed with even more urgency: A third of the global disease burden can be attributed to air pollution. A 2013 study by MIT4 estimates that air pollution from vehicle exhaust causes 53,000 early deaths every year in the U.S. alone.
Finally, walking has a positive impact on mental health. Physical activity is linked with improved mental health and lower incidents of depression. There is also evidence that walkable neighborhoods are more engaged social environments, with a stronger sense of community than less walkable equivalents3.
Walk Score is a useful measurement of walkability… but it isn’t perfect.
Because of all the benefits of walkability, realtors and municipalities are eager to quantify it for analysis. In decades past, the cost of such large-scale data collection would have been prohibitive, but recent developments in open source data have made it inexpensive and easy to access.
The most well-known walkability index is Walk Score. It takes its source data directly from Google, Education.com, Open Street Map, the U.S. Census, Localeze, and places added by the Walk Score user community. Each address is assigned a rank between 0 and 100.
The score is determined by analyzing walking routes to nearby amenities. Maximum points are awarded for amenities within a 5-minute walk, with diminishing points for more distant destinations. The score also considers pedestrian friendly factors like block length and intersection density.
Walk score uses numeric measurements like distance and density because they are easy to analyze – the resulting score provides a good overall indicator of walkability, but not the complete picture.
There are many interdependent factors that contribute to community walkability, and the Walk Score system doesn’t account for all of them. First, it weighs all destinations equally. Any one of twenty-four identified amenities count equally towards a Walk Score1.
It may sound fair, but studies have shown that only groceries, schools, banks, restaurants, and bars have a significant impact on real-world walking1. That flaw can artificially inflate the Walk Score in areas that are actually missing essential amenities.
Walk score also fails to account for sidewalk connectivity and width. Unfortunately, living close to all your favorite shops has limited value if the route lacks safe sidewalks.
Walk Score measures proximity, but it completely ignores other important factors of walkability: accessibility, security, and appeal.
Planning professionals have attempted to tackle this measurement problem with the complimentary idea of walk appeal. Instead of focusing completely on walking distance, walk appeal looks at walking quality. The basic argument? Five miles in Rome is more appealing than five miles in a BestBuy parking lot.
We already know how to increase walkability.
Walkable neighborhoods are healthier and wealthier. Thankfully, the strategy for improving walkability and walking frequency is straightforward. Some measures require a long-term planning strategy, but a surprising number can be completed on a small budget and timeline.
A walkable street provides pedestrians with access, security, and walk appeal. If any one of these factors is missing, people tend to seek alternate transport.
Pedestrian access is a pretty basic consideration, but a surprising number of buildings ignore it in favor of car-first design. This unhealthy preference to cars actually cuts off walking access to locals, encouraging unnecessary car trips in the name of convenience. In the end, the customer pays more for their transport, and the business pays to maintain more parking spaces.
End the car-first approachMake destinations accessible to pedestrians by prioritizing sidewalk and walkway entrances over car parking.
Consolidate car parkingSpaces are more walkable when parking is consolidated and priced appropriately in high-demand areas.
Link busy areas with transitConnecting busy neighborhoods with bus routes encourages more walking trips.
Real and perceived safety have an extreme impact on decisions to walk or drive. Statistically, walking is much safer than driving, but it isn’t always perceived that way.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pedestrians account for fewer than 15% of traffic fatalities. Despite the relative safety, people sometimes perceive walking as more dangerous because of the physical vulnerability they feel in the open next to large, fast moving vehicles.
Streets can increase pedestrian safety and comfort with a few design tweaks.
Connect sidewalksSidewalks are fantastic, but their usefulness drops dramatically when they aren’t connected. Pedestrians need a continuous route to reach their destination safely.
Install physical barriersSome streets are problem areas for speeding traffic and close calls. Protect pedestrians with bollards and trees to decrease the risk.
Provide adequate lightingWalking doesn’t end after sunset. Keep walking routes safe and comfortable with plenty of light.
Calm traffic in sensitive pedestrian zonesSide-routes are meant to be pedestrian friendly, but distracted drivers don’t always care. Remind them to slow down and pay attention with speed humps, signage, and crosswalk lights.
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Aesthetic appeal may be hard to quantify, but there is little doubt that looks matter. How far we walk depends on how much we enjoy the route. You can build more walkable places by following some simple design principles.
Shape interesting spacesHumans hate being bored. As silly as it sounds, people really are more likely to walk longer in areas with visually interesting building faces and art.
Create a natural sense of enclosureEnclosed spaces make people feel more secure. Bushes, trees, and flower beds are a simple and effective tool to make pedestrians comfortable in an outdoor space.
Separate walkways from parking lotsParking lots make people feel exposed and out of place. Avoid intersecting major walking routes with them wherever possible.
Build parksVicinity to parks, even just to walk through en route to another location, increases the number of walking trips.
Interested in making a more walkable space? See our selection of traffic calming tools here.
- Pivo, Gary and Fisher, Jeffrey D. “Effects of Walkability on Property values and Investment Returns.” University of Arizona and Indiana University.
- Goenka, Shifalika and Anderson, Lars Bo, “Urban design and transport to promote healthy lives.” The Lancet.
- Kleinert, Sabine and Horton, Richard. “Urban design: an important force for health and wellbeing.” The Lancet.
- Caiazzo, Fabio. “Air pollution and early deaths in the United States.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Committee on Physical Activity, Health, Transportation, and Land Use. “Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? Examining the Evidence.” Transportation Research Board.
- Frank, Lawrence D. et al. “Many Pathways from Land Use to Health: Associations between Neighborhood Walkability and Active Transportation, Body Mass Index, and Air Quality.” Journal of the American Planning Association.
- Walkable sidewalk: CoconutRyo, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr
- Cherry blossoms and walk appeal: hjl, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr