As reported in many places, but here by Slate, Walk Score is a company that “takes a physical address and computes, using proprietary algorithms and various data streams, a measure of its walkability.”
The company’s site is notable for its simplicity – enter any US address, and it will spit out a simple number meant to encapsulate its ‘walkability’ (the more amenities within walking distance, the higher the ‘walkability’) – a trait so useful that its output has been incorporated into real estate listings across the country.
Now, here’s the thing about Walk Score: it’s good at what it does, which is measure how long it takes you to walk to useful places from a given location. But just because a place can be walked doesn’t mean doing so makes for a pleasant experience. This is obvious, but please, allow me to illustrate.
The walk score of my home in Seattle is 37 – ‘Car Dependent’ – meaning 97% of Seattle residents have a higher Walk Score than I do. That’s me somewhere near the little red circle (ignore the year):
It’s true: there are no stores within convenient walking distance of my house. But it is certainly capable of being walked.
I live in a quiet neighborhood with a sidewalk, and close to Seward Park (not to be confused with the Seward Park in Manhattan, which boasts the country’s first municipally-built playground and Jacob Schiff fountain [no joke], or Seward Park, the neighborhood in which I live). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it (that is, the park in Seattle):
The 300 acres (121 ha) of Seward Park have about a 120 acre (48.6 ha) surviving remnant of old growth forest, providing a glimpse of what some of the lake shore looked like before the city of Seattle.
Wikipedia goes on to detail the park’s spectacular lakeshore, picnic areas, tennis courts, amphitheater, the Loop, hiking trails, and stunning view of Mount Rainier to the South. For all of the above, Wikipedia is assuredly a reliable source.
Now let’s find Seward Park on the map above – there it is, the darkest-possible-red peninsula sticking into Lake Washington, right to the NE of the circle I drew. In other words, the Walkability of Seward Park according to Walk Score is approximately nil, even though walking is one of the two or three things you can legally do there. (Yes, I realize this might be due partially to the fact that there are no actual addresses inside Seward Park – but as you can see, the immediate surroundings, which do contain actual addresses, are similarly red.)
By contrast, Philadelphia, where I moved about a month and a half ago (and spent a solid 4.5 years before that), my address scored a 97 – ‘Walkers’ Paradise’ – better than 97% of my fellow residents. I’m also near the red circle here (I originally used red to signify a poor walk score, but then I was too lazy to change the color in Paint):
Yes, I can walk to work. I can walk to Green Line Cafe. I can walk to Fresh Grocer. I can run around in Clark Park. I could spend – and have spent – months without leaving the immediate vicinity of Penn’s campus. But here’s the thing: I live in West Philadelphia. And while the neighborhood doesn’t deserve the reputation it has among Penn students/most people, I still wouldn’t use it in a sentence with ‘Paradise’, no matter the qualifier (OK, with one exception).
All of which brings me to New York. I’ve known about Walk Score for a while, and read that Slate article a week ago, but was inspired to write this post when I noticed someone post this Walkability heat map on Facebook:
The point of the post was how walkable New York City is – look at all that green! – and that’s definitely true, by Walk Score’s metric. You can walk almost anywhere, especially in Manhattan. I’ve never lived in the city (lowercase c) for longer than a few months at a time, but when I did, I spent a significant amount of time walking: I once walked around for so long (from ~6PM until ~3AM without really stopping), I developed shin splints [no joke].
What jumped out at me was not Manhattan’s solid green color, but the less-green strip you’ll notice toward its interior. For those of you who are not New Yorkers, that’s Central Park. And for those of you who have never been to New York, watched Friends, or live in a box, this is Central Park:
Yes, I know Walk Score ‘walkability’ measures something different, and that that something different is something I wholly support, but it’s still difficult for me to wrap my head around the degree to which it conflicts with, well, the dictionary definition of walkable. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s minimal take:
walk·able adj \ˈwȯ-kə-bəl\ : capable of or suitable for being walked
<a very walkable city> <a walkable distance>
So sure, if you like honking, homeless people, delightful smells, endless traffic, street crossings on the minute, sidewalk garbage, panhandlers, and so on, take a walk through the Walkable streets of Manhattan. But if you’re looking for a nice place to take a walk, try the ‘unwalkable’ Central Park.
As if you needed any metric to tell you that.