Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Walkability?

3 minute read

Walkability refers to the ability to safely walk to services and amenities within a reasonable distance, usually defined as a walk of 30 minutes or less.

walkable street

Dewita Soeharjono / Flickr

Grounded in the belief that reducing the need for private vehicle use improves quality of life for urban dwellers, walkability is a planning concept that encourages mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods where people can access essential services and amenities by foot. The concept is based on the idea that streets should be more than just transportation corridors designed for maximum vehicle throughput, but rather complete, livable spaces that serve a variety of uses, users, and transportation modes and reduce the need for car travel. 

Because automobile-dependent development reduces access to jobs and public spaces, increases household costs, and contributes to congestion and carbon emissions, the walkability of a neighborhood can affect everything from public health and air quality to economic development, civic engagement, and cultural resources. Higher walkability scores are often linked to higher home values and local economic well-being, while urban planners increasingly recommend building walkable cities as a key strategy for fighting climate change.

To quantify and measure walkability, experts have developed several assessment metrics. The most well-known, Walk Score, evaluates walkability based on proximity to key destinations, population density, and metrics including block length and intersection density, but does not take into account street conditions or other factors that could make even a short trip less walkable or unsafe. Walk Score rates neighborhoods on a scale from 0 to 100, where 90-100 indicates a "walker's paradise" where daily errands do not require a car and a score of 0-24 indicates a car-dependent area. As defined by Walk Score, a walkable neighborhood has a center, high population density, mixed income and mixed use, parks and public space, pedestrian design, schools and workplaces within walking distance, and complete streets that encourage multimodal transportation. 

Other indexes attempt to include other elements such as bike and pedestrian infrastructure, user perception of safety, and connectivity to transit and other amenities. Factors that improve walkability include basic infrastructure such as safe, accessible sidewalks and good lighting as well as amenities like diverse businesses and services, public seating, cleanliness, and access to public transit and active transportation modes—all of which have been shown to increase the likelihood that people will walk. The movement to emphasize walkability comes in part as a reaction to features of the suburban built environment that discourage walking, like the separation of uses that put businesses outside of walking distance, lack of sidewalks, and cul-de-sac streets. 

City leaders can also guide the development of walkable communities by making strategic land use decisions that ensure mixed-use development and a variety of housing types. While zoning ordinances have historically emphasized the separation of uses, modern zoning codes, particularly form-based codes, have evolved to prioritize design choices that promote walkability and compact development. These features include frontages, strategic window and door placement, and conflict zones that address pedestrian safety at vehicle ingress and egress sites.

Today's planning profession tends to encourage walkable neighborhoods as a tool for reducing sprawl and congestion, minimizing carbon emissions, improving public health and safety, and creating more vibrant, friendly communities. By creating a built environment that makes walking and biking safe and convenient, policymakers can provide the infrastructure needed for urban residents to reduce their dependence on cars. In recent years, the '15-minute city' has become a popular buzzword used to describe an ideal walkable community and a common mission of city leaders.

While walkability can be measured using a variety of metrics as mentioned above, experts caution that the factors that make a street pleasant and accessible will vary by location and local conditions. To achieve the broad goal of walkability, each community requires different interventions and investments in transit, infrastructure, and housing.

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