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Do Walkability Scores Really Tell Us Anything?

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Philadelphia consistently ranks as one of the most pedestrian-friendly American cities, a claim substantiated in recent years by the website Walk Score, which uses a proprietary formula to measure a neighborhood's walkability based on the proximity of amenities like schools, parks and local businesses.

Philly lands at No. 5 on the website's ranking of top walkable cities in the U.S., and that feels about right. Walk Score has emerged as the best known and arguably the most systematic measure of walkability, but there are other, less mathy takes on what makes one community more walkable than another. Do we even need to mention that the most Philly-appropriate is probably the Pub Shed?

Walk Score's allure lies in its clean, mathematical approach to assigning numerical value to neighborhoods. This veil of objectivity has made the tool immensely popular with realtors, a group of folks well acquainted with assigning numerical value to neighborhoods. If a neighborhood surpasses a threshold of amenities within a quarter-mile radius (the planner's gold standard of walkability), it is deemed "walkable," and this largely holds true.

However, embedded in this line of thinking is a reductionist view of human nature, e.g. if Little Johnny's school is only a few blocks away, then Little Johnny will inevitably walk to school. This reasoning factors out the subjectivity in both Little Johnny's personal circumstances and the condition of those particular few blocks. While Walk Score has made changes recently to account for on-the-ground realities through its Street Smart tool, it still falls into the trap of attempting to quantify the immeasurable.

This obsession with measuring a feeling extends to other walkability tests in one form or another, and indeed to most of the social sciences. Gut check time:
Likert Scales are overused. (Do you: 1. Strongly Disagree 2. Disagree 3. Feel Pretty "Meh" About the Whole Thing 4. Agree 5. Fuckin' A Right, They Are!)

Take for instance Philly's recent middling rank and hopefully GPTMC's new slogan of Ninth Best Trick or Treat City in America on real estate blog Zillow, which compiled home values, walkability scores, population density and crime reports to arrive at the rankings. No word on whether any neighborhood with a "last house on the left" was automatically disqualified.

Walk Appeal, Steve Mouzon's approach to a more holistic evaluation of walkability, attempts to account for some of the immeasurable aspects of the pedestrian experience like personal safety, beauty, etc., in different types of urban environments. Walk Appeal relies on common sense as much as data to determine that a pedestrian is more likely to walk farther in Center City than, say, Big Box outposts on Columbus Blvd., Oregon Ave. or Aramingo Ave.

This is but a small sampling of walkability tests and a far cry from accurately measuring actual mobility for all residents. Since its inception, Walk Score has added Transit Score and Bike Score functions. (Aside: Why the hell was Philly not included in the initial test of Bike Score?! Seriously, top bike commuting rates of the largest 10 cities, but no love?!) Notably missing from these tests is any mention of accessibility for wheelchair users. Hopefully some number-crunchers are developing a comprehensive model so we can continue rubbing it in Seattle's face that we're better than they are. Until then, we must wait for the candy left over from Halloween and a unified theory of everything.

What are your criteria for a good urban walk? How do you define walkability, especially when comparing sometimes radically different neighborhoods? Is it something any number can capture? Let us know in the comments.