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How walkable is your neighborhood?

Unbelievably, I’ve somehow managed not to blog about Walkscore, the site that scores any neighborhood in the U.S. according to its walkability. So, for example, plug in my home address in Brooklyn and watch the little slider march to the right as the system calculates my proximity to shops, schools, and other amenities. Walkscore grades my neighborhood as a 95 out of 100: “Walkers’ paradise.”

And it’s true! I live within an easy walk of all manner of grocery stores — conventional, yuppie, and ethnic — as well as bookstores, coffee shops, parks, pharmacies, churches, synagogues, libraries, fish stores, butchers, hardware stores, bars, restaurants (some with Michelin stars, others that turn out a damned good slice), laundromats, dry cleaners — you name it. I can easily walk to two different movie theaters, and two more are a short bike ride.

Oh, and one of the world’s best public transportation systems is only a few blocks away. Unsurprisingly, I don’t own a car.

Meanwhile, the suburban home in which I grew up gets a 40 out of 100: car-dependent. Certainly I did a lot of walking and biking as a kid, but by necessity we were a two-car family.

Recently Walkscore released a ranking of the 40 largest U.S. cities by walkability. The fun thing about lists, of course, is that you get to quibble with the results. San Francisco is more walkable than New York? I don’t think so. In San Francisco you can get away with not having a car, but it’s kind of a pain. In much of New York, this equation is flipped — it’s possible to own a car if you’re determined, but why bother?

Walkscore uses an automated formula for ranking neighborhoods, with some known gaps and issues. The biggest blind spot for New York and San Francisco, I suspect, is the inability of the system to take the quality of public transportation into account. Some of the gaps in the algorithm also explain weird minor fluctuations in the rankings. (Tribeca is the most walkable neighborhood in America? Dupont Circle is more walkable than the West Village?)

But the system, in my estimation, works surprisingly well, and succeeds spectacularly in raising questions about how we design our cities. Much attention is paid to the environmental and health benefits of walkable neighborhoods, but for a moment, forget all that: walkable neighborhoods are just much more appealing to live in, a fact that tends to be reflected in their high real estate value (although there’s a bit of a feedback loop going on here, so it would be an oversimplification to say that walkability directly causes home prices to rise). Whether you’re a kid, a senior, or somewhere in the middle, walkable neighborhoods offer myriad benefits.

Unfortunately, walkers’ paradises are also pretty rare. So while you’re checking out the Walkscore web site, you may want to take a moment to sign their transportation petition.

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