Walk Score revisited: Walk Appeal


Walk Score heat map of Philadelphia. From walkscore.com.

I love the Walk Score tool. I walk nearly everywhere I go, and especially when I travel I like to know what I’m going to be up against when I hit the sidewalk. I admit that I frequently judge a neighborhood or city by it’s Walk Score before I’ve even been there. For the uninitiated, this is what Walk Score is, according to their website:

Walk Score uses a patent-pending system to measure the walkability of an address. The Walk Score algorithm awards points based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within .25 miles receive maximum points and no points are awarded for amenities further than one mile.

For example, my apartment in Center City Philadelphia, where I walk anywhere that the subway won’t take me, has a Walk Score of 95, while my parent’s home in suburban Pittsburgh has a Walk Score of 11. My parents couldn’t walk to anything if they wanted to.

But, as Sarah Goodyear recently pointed out in The Atlantic, walk-ability and walk-desirability are not necessarily the same thing. For one, Walk Score doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of services within walking distance, i.e., a bodega and a Super Wal-Mart are both classified under “Grocery Stores.” Second, Walk Score doesn’t say anything about the quality of the environment one is walking through. According to their website, “Walk Score measures how easy it is to live a car-lite lifestyle—not how pretty the area is for walking.” They even have a list of factors that they can’t measure that impact how comfortable an environment is to walk in: crime, topography, weather, and many others.

With these shortcomings in mind, Steve Mouzon of The Original Green proposes a new metric to measure how walkable a place is: Walk Appeal. He starts with the idea, doctrine among New Urbanists, that most people will only walk a quarter of a mile before they decide they would rather drive. Mouzon claims that this distance changes based on the environment: people will easily walk two miles in Rome or London, while they would rather drive across the parking lot than walk from Best Buy to Target. While Walk Score measures density of services, Walk Appeal measures the quality of the built environment. Mouzon’s system has seven “standards” for how far people will walk in a given environment:

  • The London Standard (2 miles): These are streets “so good you’ll happily walk for miles.” Though Mouzon focuses on the streets of London, Rome, Paris, and Florence, such streets can be found in Boston, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and other cities that developed in a pre-automobile era.
  • The Main Street Standard (3/4 mile): These are traditional mixed-use streets found in older American towns. They have narrow storefronts, consistent frontage, and come right up to the sidewalk.
  • The Neighborhood Street Standard (1/4 mile): This is the old New Urbanist standard, which Mouzon seems to apply principally to residential areas of smaller single-family homes with porches and small front yards that come fairly close to the street.
  • The Suburban Neighborhood Standard (1/10 mile): These are the sort of streets that you find in older suburbs. The lots are larger and the buildings further set back than in traditional neighborhoods, and elements such as picket fences and hedgerows are less common.
  • The Subdivision Standard (250 feet): These are the streets of more recent suburbs. They are devoid of fences and hedges, sometimes even sidewalks altogether, and the streets are wide enough to see the curvature of the earth.
  • The Power Center Standard (100 feet): These are basically the parking fields of large big box stores. They are ugly, they are hot and uncomfortable in summer, and no one likes to be there.
  • The Parking-Backed Standard (25 feet): This is the sad little strip of sidewalk between the big box parking lot and the high-speed, high-capacity arterial road. This is the sort of street where, if you are walking along it, people will stop and ask you if your car broke down and if you need a lift to a repair shop.

Mouzon lists a number of criteria—View Changes, Street Enclosure, Window of View (glazing), Shelter, Goals in the Middle Distance, and Turning the Corner—that could be used to measure this quality, but doesn’t currently offer, for example, exactly how many storefronts her hundred linear feet are required to bump up a street from a Main Street Standard to a London Standard.

There are a number of holes in Mouzon’s theory at this point, some of he discusses himself and some of which are brought up by Kaid Benfield on his blog. I had some additional questions which, I hope, will help to develop the idea. For instance, there are a lot of gaps in his standards. For instance, where does a large-scale office district fall? What about row houses or dense twins like in much of West Philadelphia? What about urban alleys, which are entirely walk-able, but not walk-desirable? What about when one side of a street is a great mixed use street, and the other is the backside of a building? How do you deal with parks and trails? Do they get their own ranking system? These are the sort of questions I think need to be answered before this can be implemented at a larger scale.

A Walk Appeal analysis like what Mouzon describes could not be implemented the same way that Walk Score is. Walk Score is able to gather data from other websites and combine it in such a way as to find its score. No website I am aware of keeps track of how many stores there are per block, or what percentage of the storefronts is glazed. This would make a Walk Appeal analysis a more individual and hands-on effort, maybe one that planners, architects or designers would implement while doing research for or presenting a new plan.

Walk Appeal of St. Charles. From originalgreen.org.

Mouzon actually creates an example of how Walk Appeal can be used. He does an analysis of the Walk Appeal for a single store in St. Charles, Missouri. He first shows the current state of events, and explains how if the city were to implement various streetscaping upgrades, it could increase the Walk Appeal of the store and give it access to more people than would currently walk there.

St. Charles after street upgrades improve it’s Walk Appeal. From originalgreen.org.

I wanted to do a quick analysis for some place that I knew well, so I picked the apartment we just moved out of in University City. Since many of the holes in Mouzon’s standards are on the more urban end of things, I sort of had to approximate. I looked at St. Charles and tried to find comparable streets to those in my old neighborhood. I basically took streets that I thought were really good, and called that the Main Street Standard. Okay streets got the Neighborhood Street Standard, streets that were not nice but functional got the Suburban Neighborhood Standard, and since there are no subdivisions or overwhelming arterial strips in University City, flat-out bad streets ended up with the Power Center Standard.

Walk Appeal for an apartment at 35th and Lancaster, University City, Philadelphia.

What I saw was very interesting. The district as a whole is very walkable (Walk Score lists it as three neighborhoods, University City, Powelton and Mantua, with Walk Scores of 93, 77, and 70 respectively), but there is a wide variety in Walk Appeal. The areas around the universities are really quite nice, while the area around 30th Street Station and the Science Center are a bit weaker. University City High School is a sort of no-man’s land between the universities and Powelton Village, and as part of neither neighborhood, it really gets left behind. Powelton Village itself, with its smaller blocks, is a lovely place to walk, with the exception of the areas along the rail yard. Things get dicier in Mantua and West Powelton, where widespread vacancy brings down the Walk Appeal.

I think that if this tool is fully developed, it can be another great tool in the designer’s toolbox. I hope that Mouzon continues to develop it and turn it into a more quantifiable system. What else currently missing from the Walk Appeal analysis?

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

2 Responses to Walk Score revisited: Walk Appeal

  1. Karen says:

    Very interesting. I don’t see anything about safety or perceived safety (crime, especially, but also street lighting).

    • Dave Munson says:

      Mouzon mentions it in his unmeasurables list, and Benfield also discusses it. What i found interesting in my analysis though was that areas that were less safe (ie Mantua and West Powelton) already had a lower Walk Appeal, mostly due to vacancies.

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