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, 10:00 AM PST

By Nate Berg

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.

City Population Citywide Walk Score
San Francisco 815358 85
New York 8391881 84
Boston 645169 79
Philadelphia 1547297 74
Chicago 2851268 74
Seattle 616627 72
Washington D.C. 599657 71
Portland 566143 67
Los Angeles 3831868 67
Long Beach 462604 66
Baltimore 637418 65
Denver 610345 64
Milwaukee 605013 60
San Diego 1306300 56
San Jose 964695 55
Las Vegas 567641 54
Sacramento 466676 54
Atlanta 540922 53
Fresno 479918 52
Omaha 454731 52
Albuquerque 529219 52
Austin 786386 51
Houston 2257926 51
Columbus 769332 51
Detroit 910921 51
Tucson 543910 50
Dallas 1299542 49
Phoenix 1593659 49
Mesa 467157 47
San Antonio 1373668 44
Louisville 566503 43
Fort Worth 727577 43
Kansas City 482299 42
El Paso 620456 42
Oklahoma City 560333 42
Indianapolis 807584 41
Memphis 676640 41
Nashville 605473 39
Charlotte 704422 39
Jacksonville 813518 36

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.

City Population Citywide Score Percentage of Neighborhoods Above the Average Score (54.71)
San Francisco 815358 85 100%
Boston 645169 79 100%
Philadelphia 1547297 74 96%
New York 8391881 84 94%
Washington D.C. 599657 71 91%
Chicago 2851268 74 89%
Denver 610345 64 85%
Seattle 616627 72 83%
Portland 566143 67 79%
Long Beach 462604 66 79%
Los Angeles 3831868 67 78%
Fresno* 479918 52 75%
Austin 786386 51 67%
Baltimore 637418 65 61%
Atlanta 540922 53 59%
Tucson 543910 50 59%
San Diego 1306300 56 58%
Houston 2257926 51 56%
San Jose 964695 55 56%
Omaha^ 454731 52 56%
Columbus 769332 51 56%
Milwaukee 605013 60 52%
Louisville 566503 43 52%
Las Vegas 567641 54 52%
Albuquerque 529219 52 50%
Sacramento 466676 54 50%
Dallas 1299542 49 50%
Detroit 910921 51 40%
Mesa* 467157 47 33%
Nashville 605473 39 32%
Kansas City 482299 42 30%
Phoenix 1593659 49 30%
El Paso 620456 42 28%
Charlotte 704422 39 23%
Oklahoma City^ 560333 42 21%
San Antonio 1373668 44 19%
Jacksonville 813518 36 13%
Fort Worth 727577 43 12%
Indianapolis^ 807584 41 7%
Memphis* 676640 41 0%

* 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 Score City, by Percentage of Neighborhoods Above the Average Score (54.71)
San Francisco San Francisco
New York Boston
Boston Philadelphia
Philadelphia New York
Chicago Washington D.C.
Seattle Chicago
Washington D.C. Denver
Portland Seattle
Los Angeles Portland
Long Beach Long Beach
Baltimore Los Angeles
Denver Fresno*
Milwaukee Austin
San Diego Baltimore
San Jose Atlanta
Las Vegas Tucson
Sacramento San Diego
Atlanta Houston
Fresno San Jose
Omaha Omaha^
Albuquerque Columbus
Austin Milwaukee
Houston Louisville
Columbus Las Vegas
Detroit Albuquerque
Tucson Sacramento
Dallas Dallas
Phoenix Detroit
Mesa Mesa*
San Antonio Nashville
Louisville Kansas City
Fort Worth Phoenix
Kansas City El Paso
El Paso Charlotte
Oklahoma City Oklahoma City^
Indianapolis San Antonio
Memphis Jacksonville
Nashville Fort Worth
Charlotte Indianapolis^
Jacksonville Memphis*

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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