Walkability Scores Don’t Tell the Whole Story

A new report concludes that common ‘walkability’ measures don’t account for many barriers faced by pedestrians, such as environmental factors and policing.

May 4, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


walkable street

Dewita Soeharjono / Flickr

According to Kea Wilson, “if cities truly want to be pedestrian-friendly, they need to think beyond the sidewalk, particularly in neighborhoods of color that face the steepest barriers.” However, while walkability scoring tools attempt to quantify the accessibility of neighborhoods for pedestrians, they leave out important factors. “That’s mostly because walkability algorithms tend to grade neighborhoods highly when they offer a lot of destinations within ‘walking distance,‘ but don’t closely scrutinize things like pedestrian crash rates, how long it takes to cross the road, the presence or absence of sidewalks, or even whether or not people you know, actually walk in a given neighborhood right now.”

A new analysis from the Urban Institute used five criteria to get a more accurate picture of actual walkability in Washington, D.C.: access to “essential destinations,” environmental quality factors such as air pollution and shade, infrastructure, policing, and road safety. “The study focused on data that could be sourced from public sources in hopes that other cities could easily replicate their work, but the researchers were forced to leave out certain critical and under-studied walking barriers, like rates of gender-based street harassment, accessibility for people with disabilities, and flood patterns in communities with poor drainage.”

“Still, the researchers say that’s all the more reason for city leaders to expand the kinds of data they collect on mobility barriers among various groups — and to think just as broadly about how improving one metric, like the prevalence of ‘self-enforcing’ street designs, could possibly improve other metrics, like decreasing the number of police stops.”

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