Feature

Walkable Cities, Walkable Neighborhoods

New neighborhood-level data from the walkability rating website Walk Score has broadened the view of what it means to live in a walkable city.
December 6, 2010, 10am PST | Nate Berg
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Over the past few years, the website Walk Score has gained a lot of popularity amongst urban planners, developers and, maybe most especially, real estate agents. It's a mapping tool that quantifies the walkability of street addresses with a simple 0-100 score, based on proximity to a variety of amenities. It's an easy way to find a new place to live, or to navel-gaze and see just how well your address measures up.

It's also a good way to compare places. In 2008, the site released citywide Walk Scores for 40 cities, aggregating scores from addresses throughout cities to give average scores across entire urban areas. "Top 10" lists inevitably ensued. As with many of these sorts of lists, the value is mainly in the novelty, but these figures do well to illustrate how cities differ on a macro scale.

Enter the micro scale.

A new release of data has created scores for more than 2,500 cities in the U.S., and, most importantly, the scores of more than 6,000 neighborhoods within these cities. The site has released a number of "heat maps" that show, through a red-to-green color overlay, where the highest and lowest Walk Scores are within a city. The maps are pretty cool to look at, as are these side-by-side heat maps.

This neighborhood-level data is important because it offers a more precise look at just how walkable a city is. A citywide Walk Score of 50 might seem fine, but how many neighborhoods and areas within that city actually scored just a 2 or a 3? Neighborhood-level scores allow people to look at a city and see not only a generally walkable place, but specific walkable areas within that place.

And, now, with all this additional data, let the Top 10 lists emerge yet again. I'll start, though I'm trying to get a slightly broader view. In the following tables and lists, I look at the 40 most populous cities in the U.S. (based on 2009 data from the U.S. Census Bureau), comparing both their citywide Walk Score averages and their neighborhood-level scores.

But before the listing begins, it must be stated that this data is by no means perfect. Not every neighborhood from every city is listed. Some cities have very few neighborhoods listed (Fresno, California, for example, has just four neighborhood Walk Scores) and others have more than 100 (San Antonio, Texas, has the most, with 230 listed). Also, three cities were divided by ZIP codes rather than neighborhoods. What defines a "neighborhood" is rather amorphous, so drawing clear comparisons between them across cities isn't exactly laboratory science. And Walk Score's method of assigning number scores is based on the proximity of amenities – another loose term that can be parks or elementary schools or bars. A bunch of bars might be desirable for some, but maybe less so for the parents of elementary school kids.

The data may be less than perfect, but for these purposes it offers a considerable amount of detail that is worth comparing.

Below is a list of the 40 most populous cities in the U.S., ranked by citywide Walk Score.

CityPopulationCitywide Walk Score
San Francisco81535885
New York839188184
Boston64516979
Philadelphia154729774
Chicago285126874
Seattle61662772
Washington D.C.59965771
Portland56614367
Los Angeles383186867
Long Beach46260466
Baltimore63741865
Denver61034564
Milwaukee60501360
San Diego130630056
San Jose96469555
Las Vegas56764154
Sacramento46667654
Atlanta54092253
Fresno47991852
Omaha45473152
Albuquerque52921952
Austin78638651
Houston225792651
Columbus76933251
Detroit91092151
Tucson54391050
Dallas129954249
Phoenix159365949
Mesa46715747
San Antonio137366844
Louisville56650343
Fort Worth72757743
Kansas City48229942
El Paso62045642
Oklahoma City56033342
Indianapolis80758441
Memphis67664041
Nashville60547339
Charlotte70442239
Jacksonville81351836

The following table offers a bit more detail on top of the last. By comparing all 2,621 Walk Scores at the neighborhood level in these 40 cities, I've come up with an average Walk Score for neighborhoods: 54.71. This is pretty close to the average Walk Score based on citywide scores: 55.17. Using the neighborhood-level average of 54.71, I then looked at each city to see how many of its neighborhoods scored above the average. Below is a ranking of cities that have the highest percentage of neighborhoods with Walk Scores above the neighborhood-level average.

CityPopulationCitywide ScorePercentage of Neighborhoods Above the Average Score (54.71)
San Francisco81535885100%
Boston64516979100%
Philadelphia15472977496%
New York83918818494%
Washington D.C.5996577191%
Chicago28512687489%
Denver6103456485%
Seattle6166277283%
Portland5661436779%
Long Beach4626046679%
Los Angeles38318686778%
Fresno*4799185275%
Austin7863865167%
Baltimore6374186561%
Atlanta5409225359%
Tucson5439105059%
San Diego13063005658%
Houston22579265156%
San Jose9646955556%
Omaha^4547315256%
Columbus7693325156%
Milwaukee6050136052%
Louisville5665034352%
Las Vegas5676415452%
Albuquerque5292195250%
Sacramento4666765450%
Dallas12995424950%
Detroit9109215140%
Mesa*4671574733%
Nashville6054733932%
Kansas City4822994230%
Phoenix15936594930%
El Paso6204564228%
Charlotte7044223923%
Oklahoma City^5603334221%
San Antonio13736684419%
Jacksonville8135183613%
Fort Worth7275774312%
Indianapolis^807584417%
Memphis*676640410%

* denotes cities with very little neighborhood-level data, which makes their resulting rank possibly inaccurate.
^ denotes cities which were divided by ZIP Codes rather than neighborhoods.

The following table is a match-up of the cities from both of the previous tables.

City, by Citywide Walk ScoreCity, by Percentage of Neighborhoods Above the Average Score (54.71)
San FranciscoSan Francisco
New YorkBoston
BostonPhiladelphia
PhiladelphiaNew York
ChicagoWashington D.C.
SeattleChicago
Washington D.C.Denver
PortlandSeattle
Los AngelesPortland
Long BeachLong Beach
BaltimoreLos Angeles
DenverFresno*
MilwaukeeAustin
San DiegoBaltimore
San JoseAtlanta
Las VegasTucson
SacramentoSan Diego
AtlantaHouston
FresnoSan Jose
OmahaOmaha^
AlbuquerqueColumbus
AustinMilwaukee
HoustonLouisville
ColumbusLas Vegas
DetroitAlbuquerque
TucsonSacramento
DallasDallas
PhoenixDetroit
MesaMesa*
San AntonioNashville
LouisvilleKansas City
Fort WorthPhoenix
Kansas CityEl Paso
El PasoCharlotte
Oklahoma CityOklahoma City^
IndianapolisSan Antonio
MemphisJacksonville
NashvilleFort Worth
CharlotteIndianapolis^
JacksonvilleMemphis*

Looking at the cities in each list side-by-side gives what I think is a different, and slightly more specific, view of walkability in American cities.



Nate Berg is a contributing editor at Planetizen, and a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. He's also on Twitter.

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