If you haven't heard of it, walkscore.com is a Google map mashup that computes a location's walkability (on a scale from 0 to 100) based on the number and variety of destinations within 1.6 kilometres (1 mile).
For example, the corner of Locke Street and Tuckett Street has a walk score of 85, or "Very Walkable - Most errands can be accomplished on foot." In contrast, the corner of Garth Street and Mohawk Road West has a dismal score of 43, or "Car-Dependent - A few amenities are within walking distance".
It's a crude indicator, but for most types of development it actually does a really good job of approximating how walkable a place really is.
It only starts to break down on so-called Edge City land use. For example, if some benighted soul lived right at the corner of Mohawk Road and Upper James, they would perversely enjoy a walk score of 80, or "Very Walkable", due to the proliferation of (car-dependent) destinations within 1.6 km.
Nevertheless, it's as good a comparative walkability barometer as we have right now, and researchers have already taken interest in it.
Surveys of home buyers have consistently found that most people would prefer to live in a walkable neighbourhood, and there appears to be a significant premium in the housing market for homes in walkable surroundings.
A 2009 report by CEOs for Cities [PDF] that looked at 15 US metropolitan areas concluded that for similar homes in different neighbourhoods, each point gain in a property's walk score translates into a mean increase of a little over $1,500.
Housing value correlated with walk score in both "older, denser markets" and "faster growing Sunbelt markets" alike. Some cities, like Chicago, Sacramento and San Francisco, had point gains much higher than $1,500.
In only two markets was the walk score negatively correlated with home value: Las Vegas, Nevada and Bakersfield, California - two uber-sprawl cities.
More recently, a 2012 report [PDF] by the Brookings Institute analyzed walk scores in Washington DC and concluded that more walkable places perform better economically than less walkable places. It also observed a positive correlation between walk score and property values.
Hence why real estate agents are paying attention to the economic value of walkability. Many property listings now include the property's walk score.
Smart cities that have already embraced walkable land use and transportation are doing the best job of attracting new residents, and those residents are doing the best job of creating new employment opportunities.
Meanwhile, cities like Hamilton refuse to give up their postwar planning models where the highest aspiration of the zoning by-law was to separate uses, limit density and make abundant room for automobiles.
Instead of investing in healthy walkable neighbourhood development, we continue to neglect the lower city while building ever-more auto-dependent sprawl housing - exactly the kind of housing that has already stagnated in the US as people move back into cities.
Instead of relying on our geographic status as the destination of "drive 'til you qualify" bargain hunting, maybe we should get off the sprawl wagon and try doing what actually works.
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