Can you have too much walkability?

There is undeniable evidence of housing preferences shifting from auto-centred suburban locations to more walkable, higher-density urban spaces.

But does everyone want perfect walkability?  Do they want to have all amenities they’ll ever need in close proximity–given that often comes with higher car, foot and bike traffic as well as noise.

The web application walkscore.com is a fantastic tool that measures how walkable a location is, based on proximity to amenities.  A score is derived from the variety of amenities and number of choices in each category. 100 is a perfect score, and a handful of North American locations achieve that.  Walkscore has changed the way many people search for homes.

Does everyone who wants “walkability” actually want a walkscore of 95-100?  I love my walkscore-98 home’s location, just one block from a wide variety of independent stores and restaurants but it comes trade offs.

Here are three aspects of my particular location that may not appeal to everyone.

  • There’s no visitor parking on nice afternoons and lots of shoppers heading for the nearby retail-restaurant-commercial street seeking parking circling the block (constant albeit slow-moving traffic).
  • When the bars and restaurants close down at 2 AM, it’s noisy as people wander home or to their cars (!).
  • There’s not much privacy–and this isn’t a high rise neighbourhood, it’s all ground-oriented.  There are people around all the time (which is good for deterring crime, however).

To some people, this might be too much, too close–that is, too much walkability.

What about some 85 scoring homes?

If I run a walkscore 2-3 blocks east of my home, further away from the main shopping-urban space, the score drops to 85.   But 2-3 blocks away feels like another world.  The streets are quieter in terms of cars and people.  There are not shoppers from outside the neighbourhood seeking parking.

Yet are these 85-walkscore homes really that much “less walkable” than the 98 scoring ones?  Do two blocks make that much difference? To some people yes, but to many others, not really.

Alternatively, if I run a walkscore in another neighbourhood with a different population profile (slightly older), in what I would consider a walkable location, same 1-block distance from the main shopping strip as my home, that same 85 comes up.

There are no pubs nearby, and a slightly lower quantity of stores in each category which accounts for the lower score. If you’re usually in bed by 10 PM, and are content with two pharmacies rather than four, is this locale “less walkable” to you than the 98?  Probably not, since you don’t use the nearby amenities that achieved a 98.

A couple decades ago, few people wanted walkability–they wanted quiet, or the perceived security of auto-centred life.  Today, many want the opposite.  But maybe we’ve gone too far in thinking everybody should have everything close by?  Perhaps even more people would embrace an urban life with an 85 walkscore?

Or, maybe soon they’ll be a “custom” walkscore ap, where you can prioritize what amenities matter to you, and the distance which you consider walkable.

Cities are great in this way–something for everyone.

What’s your ideal walkscore?  (and your current one?)

8 comments

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  2. Daniel says:

    I agree that there is demand for urban living arrangements all along this range of choices between more private and more public. One of the reasons I think viable transit has such a positive effect on land use is that it essentially forces variations between the 98 score places and the 85 score places. The transit lines can’t run everywhere, so they usually stick to the main arterials. Growth occurs around the stops (if allowed to), leaving patches of space that fall between the cracks, so to speak, of the stops.

    The way you’ve framed this, these naturally occurring variations fit the market demand for homes very well. If you want the action you live closer to the stop. If you want the quiet, and are willing to walk a little bit more (or bike), you live in between stops. Seems like a reasonable trade-off.

  3. marco says:

    My current score is 83: I live in the Very center of Lausanne and the low score is mainly due to the lack of hospitals (who are just 6-700 m away) and post offices not well shown on Walkscore.com. And I have the same problems as you: people coming back from bars and discos at 2AM, few and expensive parking places for anyone who wants to visit me…

    For me, a walkscore over 70 is wonderful and anything around 50 is still acceptable: I like to go to a different bar every weekend, so having a pub just in front of my place is not that useful, and I’ll be likely to travel a little more in oreder to get to a hospital. And even if my workplace has a walkscore of 53 and is 2 km away from my place(30 minutes walk) I still get there on foot!

  4. Melanie says:

    My current residence’s score is 91. I experience the benefits and detractions you’ve listed. Much of my place’s high score results from several bus lines converging at a transit stop just a block away; these buses get here by an overhead freeway which contributes both visual and sonic blight to the neighborhood.

    It’d be great to have another layer to add to a WalkScore map, one with average daytime and nighttime outdoor decibel levels. I’m willing to go down ten, twenty, even thirty, points in WalkScore if it gets me away from this d*!?@#d freeway noise.

    That said, I grew up in a place with a WalkScore of 18, so I probably have unreasonable expectations of tranquility.

  5. Jamin says:

    Excellent take. My home’s score is 72, but my entire neighborhood is carved out of a set of steep hills. For a young, mobile man like myself, it’s a 5-minute walk down to the amenities and a 20-minute, sweaty walk back up–challenging, unique, and fun for me. But for many of my neighbors, I’d imagine their personal walk score would be extremely low. Poor physical condition, handicaps, etc.

    I think elevation change should be factored in to the score. Sure, the grocery store is half a mile away, but if I have to carry my goods up 400 vertical feet, it changes things. I love it, but others….

  6. Wendy Waters says:

    Thanks for the comments. Hmmm…Melanie, I like the idea of mapping decibel levels in city neighbourhoods. I wonder if anyone has done that.

    Jamin, you’re right, it is also interesting how hills create a barrier. Going 3 blocks east from my house (mentioned in the blog post) also involves going up hill, and I think that hill plays a roll in why it seems quieter there.

    Marco–your comment suggest what we view as “walkability” may vary by culture or nation. Is 30 minutes “walkable” to North Americans? (generally not, I would argue; I used to walk home from downtown in the summers, which took 45 minutes, and most people found that odd or extreme)

    Daniel–you sum it up well: in many cities and neighbourhoods there are almost-linear balancing opportunities between extreme-walkability-with-noise vs increasingly quieter or more private living, but a need to walk a few extra blocks.

  7. Ian R says:

    Does the walkscore factor in the road type in terms of accessing the amenities? I think this is important as it cannot treat a wide 6 lane street, freeway or even sidewalkless suburban street as sensible, walkable routes. Much of what makes places ‘walkable’ however is the sense of place or character. Whether this is the topographyy, or the fact you have to walk down some dark dank alleys to get to the amenities.

    The point about multiples of the same amenity is good, what’s the significant walkable benefit of four pharmacies instead over two

  8. Hank says:

    Walk score is fickle and flawed. My house used to rate 91, but recently I discovered it is now rated at 83. To my knowledge it is just as walkable as it was before, but the model has evidently changed.

    Something else that is flawed regards the dependence on addressing. This is particularly important regarding parks. I am 3 blocks from a major park, as is my sister (who lives on the other end of it). It shows up on her walk score, but not on mine, because the official address is for the entrance near her house, even though my access to the park is just as convenient and walkable.

    As with most things, it is a useful tool for getting a general sense of things, but should not be considered authoritative. It’s always best to multi-source.